A wry Charles Addams channeling arisen to challenge the childrens’-section dominance of J.K. Rowling, the Lemony Snicket narratives are sourball bad-time stories, all set in a darkling neverland not unlike the horrific opening movement of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, before the peach. Nothing reaches the reader’s spine, however, since uncredited author Daniel Handler winks so loudly at his own devilries, and his unabashed weltschmerz is an obvious parody of Victorian morality tales even to young minds who haven’t read them. This approach, with its almost Laurence Sterne-esque compulsion to step out of itself and attempt to dissuade the hapless reader from continuing with something so unpleasant, elevates Handler’s books above the ‘tween-gothic norm (as any budding postmodern 10-year-old can tell you). Certainly, the first Hollywood adaptation of the series gains land speed over the Harry Potter flicks simply by being self-effacingly witty about movie watching and adolescent desires.
After offering up and then dismissing an alternate film experience—a cretinously joyful stop-motion cream puff titled The Little ElfTM—the movie hunkers down for a merry skip through tragic clichés. The three Baudelaire siblings—14-year-old Rube Goldberg savant Violet (Emily Browning), 13-year-old bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken), and toddler-with-teeth Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are more or less instantly orphaned by a mysterious fire, and as with Potter, the violent subtraction of parents is merely the beginning of their dilemmas. Here the roller coaster of doom is part of the snicker. The three are in no time handed over to a nearby relative, one Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a filthy, vain bachelor-actor who’s conceived as equal parts Fagin, Max Schreck, and Beetlejuice. A malevolent liar in the books, not unlike Robert Mitchum’s loot-hunting preacher in The Night of the Hunter—he wants only the children’s inheritance, and will stop at nothing for it—Olaf’s movie incarnation has been thoroughly Carrey-ized. Not keeping faith with even this snarkiest of bestselling authors, the filmmakers (including Men in Black II scripter Robert Gordon) have let Carrey flounce up his scenes with free-associative improv, Robin Williams-style, imitating hungry dinosaurs, quoting old TV commercials, and generally kicking up a fog of nonsensical shtick that’s as out of place in Handler’s timeless-but-antiquated universe as it was in Dr. Seuss’s.
It’s a fine thing that director Brad Silberling’s design team and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki countercharge Carrey’s glory-hounding with a spectacularly baroque visual gloominess. (The palette suggests an optimum program for correctly adapting Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.) Carrying forth through the first three books, Olaf’s schemes are clearly viewed as inappropriate parenting even in this landscape, and so the appalled trio get shuttled to more distant family members (Billy Connolly’s spirited herpetologist, Meryl Streep’s phobic widow), with the pursuing Olaf masquerading his way back into their lives.
Handler knows his kid lit, and knows what, pace Alison Lurie, the grown-ups should never be told. Unfortunate Events is nothing if not a visceral, if irreverent, study in the childhood horror of adult unreliability. Surrounded by self-obsessed surrogate parents, the Baudelaires can only rely upon each other as they pass through one absurd disaster after another. (The collapse of a ramshackle cliff house into Lake Lachrymose is palpable in its misfortune.) Eventually, Olaf commits the ultimate affront—attempting to literally marry the pubertal Violet, a scene so loaded with transgressive, dreamlike menace it’s difficult not to take it seriously on some subterranean level.
In time, Carrey’s monkeyshines, Jude Law’s silhouetted reappearances as Snicket, and the inevitable descent of Beverly Hills pathos blunt the movie’s fastidious dark-carnival humor. (The insistent subtitling of Sunny’s infantile burblings—”Bite me!”—irritates from the outset and only grows more nettlesome.) But Unfortunate Events has a distinct flavor, as much a product of the digital storm clouds and storybook-ornate architecture as of Handler’s buoyant pessimism and Browning’s apple-faced, pan-Asian beauty. Still, the comparison to The Night of the Hunter is wholly apt; the new film plays like a Nickelodeon cartoonization of the 1955 Grimmian noir, complete with fairy-tale fauna and an adult sphere as clueless to the presence of evil as it is unprepared for cataclysm. At the very least, there are no wands, wizard robes, or Quidditch, and the fresh-faced Snicketeers in the reading-viewing audience are regarded as compatriots, not mere consumers.