Movie Review - Sweet and sour

Little sugar but lots of ham in Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket has taught young readers ironic detachment worthy of French intellectuals. The pseudonym of children's author Daniel Handler, Snicket recounts, with great shows of regret, the hard-luck adventures of the Baudelaire orphans in novels collectively called A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket doesn't mock his young heroes' misfortunes, but doesn't take them too seriously, either. The humor comes from his wry tone as he recounts their hairbreadth escapes from melodramatic predicaments.

The film adaptation, titled Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, puts director Brad Silberling in a position as precarious as any the Baudelaires ever face. Silberling struggles to resist Hollywood's knee-jerk love of happy endings while staying faithful to Snicket's cheerful contempt for upbeat material. Little sugar coating encrusts Lemony Snicket on the big screen, but as the villainous Count Olaf, Jim Carrey proves the villain of the piece in more ways than one.

An inexplicable fire claims the lives of the parents of the three uniquely talented Baudelaire children. Violet (Emily Browning) has a flair for invention, Klaus (Liam Aiken) reads constantly and with total recall, and toddler Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) likes to bite things. The clueless legal system (represented by Timothy Spall's befuddled barrister) puts the kids in the care of Count Olaf, a preening, would-be master thespian who views his new charges as little better than vermin. Olaf soon begins putting the youngsters in harm's way with hopes of pocketing their massive inheritance.

Tapping Carrey to play a ham actor probably sounded inspired, but in practice, it's like putting an arsonist in charge of paper recycling. Popping his eyeball, striking mannered poses and randomly enunciating his syllables, Carrey offers not acting but affectation. He provides an amusing little caricature when Olaf impersonates a nasal lab assistant, sort of like a Eugene Levy role. But his Olaf proves to be just the latest variation of Carrey's usual shtick and not a breathing, conniving personality in his own right. (Would that he learned from Meryl Streep's example, who turns fraidy-cat Aunt Josephine into a minor tour de force of pixilated phobia and maternal tenderness.)

Otherwise, Silberling envisions a gloriously gothic imaginary universe for Snicket's stories, as if the 20th century never evolved past the fashion and fads of the Victorian era. The film's intricate design perfectly matches the plot's literal cliffhangers. The children apply their erudition and ingenuity to survive Olaf's recurring deathtraps, from being stranded on train tracks to being cornered in a shack that teeters over an abyss.

Jude Law's narration perfectly matches Snicket's prose — you can practically hear the crocodile tears in his voice. But there's a difference between reading about the Baudelaires' ordeals in print and seeing, for instance, Olaf strike young Klaus across the face. But Silberling never makes Snicket so dark as to be genuinely upsetting. We share the Baudelaires' dismay when helpful characters are murdered, but in each case, the ill-fated adults ignore the children's warnings, so the victims have no one to blame but themselves.

Snicket introduces some condescending humor at times. It's initially funny when the film provides subtitles for Sunny's baby talk, but lines like, "What a schmuck!" feel like pandering to the audience. Fortunately, Browning and Aiken portray the melancholy siblings with quiet intelligence and no traces of knowing cuteness. Whenever Violet embarks on an invention, she ties her hair back with black ribbon in a cinematic "hero gesture" as dashing, in its way, as Luke Skywalker whipping out his light saber.

Lemony Snicket never claims that things will turn out all right for the Baudelaire threesome in the end, but as long as they stick together, they prove equal to the most ghastly obstacles. The film only violates that idea at the climax, when Klaus relies on an external miracle, rather than his own capabilities, to save the day. For the most part, Lemony Snicket distinguishes itself from typical family entertainment by telling its audience to hope for the best, but expect the worst.