When I heard that Jim Carrey would be starring in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, based on the first three installments of the deliciously arch and ironic series of the same name by Lemony Snicket, my heart sank. Obviously, I thought, it was doomed to be a vehicle for Carreys brand of broad physical humor played with that lurking edge of palpable desperation. It is with mixed emotions that I report that I was only half right. True, when Carrey is on screen, he does the cinematic equivalent of sucking all the oxygen out of the room. But its also true that when casting the older Baudelaire orphans, Klaus and Violet, to whom the series of unfortunate events occur, the gods of celluloid smiled down and proffered up Liam Aiken and Emily Browning, who not only understand the subject matter, but also project the necessary solemn self-possession to make the material work.
The other bad news, or dare I call it another unfortunate event, was the news that Barry Sonnenfeld would be producing, and once again the results have produced in me mixed emotions, to match the mixed results. Sonnenfelds signature style is big-budget films that are visually overproduced, but, shall we say, a bit forgetful when it comes to developing a script. Granted that for reasons that may have much to do with the way children grow and the number of volumes in the series that could putatively be filmed, combining three books into one film is a practical approach. It does not, however, excuse the shamefully short shrift given to every imaginatively eccentric adult character save Carreys evil Count Olaf, the evil guardian out to kill the orphans and inherit their fortune. One longs to spend more time with snake-obsessed Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and his menagerie of reptiles, or with Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), who lives in a house precariously cantilevered to the side of a steep, sheer cliff, yet flits about beneath a bobbling top-knot in desperate fear of radiators, doorknobs and welcome mats. She in particular has a handle on the subtle nature of the black humor, chirping her lines with a less-is-more approach. To see her and Carrey on the same screen is to see what could and should have been. Aiken and Browning, have the same effect, perfect timing, deadpan delivery, and the conviction inspired in all who behold them that Klaus really has read 15 books on sailing and remembered everything about them, and that Violet can invent anything out of anything and save the day doing it. Even Kara and Shelby Hoffman as Sunny Baudelaire, the toddler with the jaws of steel, manage a sober range of reaction shots to the unfortunate turns life takes. Carrey, on the other hand, inspires only the belief that he can twist his torso and arch an eyebrow in pursuit of a laugh.
To be fair, the story, cobbled together though it is, does maintain a through-plot to keep things going and Sonnenfelds penchant for over-producing pays off with the stunning art direction and special effects. For fans of the books, and I am one, this is precisely the way I imagined it, nightmare landscapes that bring to mind Edward Gorey at his most whimsical, which wasnt very. Its a completely separate world where motor cars have reel-to-reel tape decks, the women are decked out in intricate Edwardian splendor, and the colors rarely glow warmly, if at all. Cool grays, blacks, and oddly menacing purples are the backdrop for perspective shots that are just the slightest scooch off true, evoking the appropriate sort of almost subconscious vertigo. The effects by ILM pull out all the stops from Sonny nestling in the coils of an oddly nurturing viper, to the ever-resourceful Baudelaire children escaping from Aunt Violets house as it literally crumbles behind their mad dash and tumbles into the sea seemingly miles below. As for the carnivorous, and surprisingly aggressive, leeches that populate Lake Lachrymose, they are but one element that younger kids might find too frightening.
Narrated in sepulchral tones by Jude Law as the author himself, who is not above interrupting the action for a digression or two, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is an unfortunate mixed bag, but one worth seeing for what is good in it. Because when its good, its very, very good, but when its bad, its Carrey.