Friday, December 24, 2004

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Review by Sombrero Grande

I would like to caution my readers that this rotten review contains a sinister sprinkling of spoilers, a word which here means, "I'm going to be giving away important plot points that those who have not read the books won't know already." I suggest that if you do not want any part of this malodorous movie spoiled for you, now is a good time to instead read a spoiler-free review of a happy Elf movie. You've been warned.

You know, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a rather long title, and yet it's still not ultimately accurate. The film's full title should be "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Occasionally Amusing Moments In A Film Which You Would Be Unfortunate To Watch." And while I'm aware that the film and the books upon which it is based encourage you not to watch/read and use a lot of awful descriptions to downplay said items, here I'm not trying to be cute; I mean it when I say it's pretty bad.

A Series of Unfortunate Events is not utterly awful—there are several honest laughs, clever touches and impressive visuals—but overall it just doesn't amount to a film which is anything to write home about, a phrase which here means, "the equivalent of a frowny face emoticon." I think one of the aspects which seriously hampers the film is the miscasting of Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. The Count is a horrible, horrible man, a mass murderer and worse. So, why is he played like a wise-cracking goofball? Jim Carrey is a very talented guy as some of his more recent film performances will attest to, but here his portrayal reminded me of his earliest film roles and of the late eighties and early nineties film roles of Robin Williams. What do I mean? Remember how in Mrs. Doubtfire, there were moments when you could tell Christopher Columbus gave Williams a few minutes just to goof off and improvise any ol’ shtick? The same went for Carrey vehicles like Ace Ventura and The Mask where Jim would employ any and every tangential pop culture reference for a cheap laugh. So not only is it frustrating to see Carrey returning to the same lame silliness here, but it in no way fits the context of the film. Carrey’s Count Olaf cracks a “wax on, wax off” joke at one point, which pulled me right out of the movie’s setting. Am I supposed to believe that in this fanciful Tim Burton-esque world there actually exists the movie The Karate Kid?

To me, director Brad Silberling is like a kind of “Tim Burton lite,” which is not necessarily a bad thing. He gives A Series of Unfortunate Events an otherworldly visual quality that is quite pleasing and escapist. The escapism is helpful when the film delves into some of its darker material. And there is some DARK material here. Like what, you ask? How about multiple first-degree murders, man-eating leaches, giant snakes, physical child abuse, an old man marrying a 14-year-old girl and the attempted slaughter of an infant. What?! Isn’t this supposed to be a kids’ movie? Well, yes, and that’s why a few times the movie pulls its punches. You see, the audience never actually sees any of the murders, just sees immediately before and after. Personally I found this a tad irritating when Aunt Josephine’s murder is so vaguely depicted that you could foreseeably miss it entirely if you’re not playing total attention. Why couldn’t the film at least have shown her falling into the water? The way it plays out in the movie is a bit confusing and annoying. When the film pulls its punches in this way it feels very much like a children’s movie, but then old Count Olaf sets to marry 14-year-old Violet and it’s time to wonder if this becomes something to worry about your kids watching.

A Series of Unfortunate Events comprises the unfortunate events in the first three of Lemony Snicket’s popular—a word which here means, “they make a lot of money”—books, of which there are plans to end up with a total of 13. So, no doubt, the studios responsible for this cinematic mess are hoping to have a potential franchise here, ala Harry Potter. If A Series of Unfortunate Events is any indication, I certainly hope they don’t. While the downbeat angle that is the books’ and film’s most prominent feature is clever at first, it wears out its welcome so quickly that even by the end of the film everything has resolved into a semi-happy ending with the only lingering threat of more “unfortunate events” really only there to allow the possibility of sequels.

Oh, and speaking of the ending, how is it that Count Olaf isn’t killed by the man-eating leaches, being hit by the train or falling off that incredibly high cliff? It reminds me of the cartoon physics that allows Tom to be blown up multiple times but if Jerry ever got hit with a stick of dynamite he’d die. The film doesn’t come across as a kind of live-action cartoon, so this, like so many other moments in the film, doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest. While A Series of Unfortunate Events has a nice, cohesive visual style, its storytelling style is mismatched at best, a phrase which here means, “like taking the pieces of multiple jigsaw puzzles and snapping them together, hoping to end up with a unified image at the end, which of course you won’t.”


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