Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Directed by Brad Silberling
I could accuse the new children’s movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, of style over substance – it’s oozing with style and gets by with a fairly predictable plot. Top-billed Jim Carrey, as the evil Count Olaf, came across as a typical one-dimensional villain from a kid’s movie. He mugs and waves his arms but seems possibly a bit bound up in his costuming – I didn’t see much of his wildly physical style of humor – not the best performance I’ve seen from Jim Carrey. Anyway, he is actually in a supporting role as the villain. The leads are the Baudelaire children, Violet (Emily Browning) and Klaus (Liam Aiken) who are orphaned after their house burns mysteriously and their parents disappear. There’s also an infant Baudelaire who they carry around, almost as a prop – the baby’s coos are subtitled to occasional comic effect. The movie consists of Count Olaf trying various means to get the family fortune that the kids’ parents have left them. Carrey does get to play several whacky roles – Count Olaf is a (bad) actor who uses his chops to disguise himself as he pursues the kids. The child actors have considerable charm – particularly Emily Browning, who has a way of looking straight into the camera (which usually doesn’t work) and connecting with the audience.
The real stars of Lemony Snicket are the people who created the beautifully dark, whacky, vaguely retro look of the film. It reminded me a little of Edward Sissorhands -- but even better! – in production design, costumes and cinematography. The producers hired some very talented artists (production design by Rick Heinrichs, art direction by John Dexter and Martin Whist, and Costume Design by Colleen Atwood and Donna O'Neal), gave them a decent budget and let it rip. In terms of what you see up on the big screen – and you have to see it in 35mm for full effect – this is one of the most impressive movies of the year. So, it may be style over substance but, man, what style! Every house, every car, every exterior (probably not real exteriors) – all are done in a wildly stylized creepy look. There isn’t a plain looking frame in the whole film – it’s a true art film in the literal sense of the word. The look of the film also didn’t seem at all trendy – no discernable references to current pop culture were used – which I found to be a brave choice. The easy way out would be to include common motifs from current video games or music videos.
Of all the performances, only Meryl Streep’s Aunt Josephine is truly great. Aunt Josephine is a wide-eyed, paranoid, shut-in who lives in a house that’s cantilevered over a high cliff. The kids visit her while trying to hide from Olaf – I wish they had stayed longer, making Josephine’s part bigger.
The children are articulate and savvy – the movie not only doesn’t dumb-down the kids in an effort to broaden the audience but presents the girl as an inventor and the boy as an avid reader of hundreds of books -- they call on their knowledge to get themselves out of trouble as Olaf pursues them. While one could criticize the movie for being dark or having simplified characters – more on that later – I like the message that these are very bright kids whose brain power helps them overcome life’s obstacles. All of the adult characters, as is common in children’s movies, are portrayed as either mentally deficient or deranged in some way or another – the kids are the only rational beings in sight. I think the movie would be more effective dramatically if the adults – or at least some of them -- were allowed to be more realistic people.
Getting back to the style over substance criticism, I’m willing to cut children’s movies some slack in that I don’t hold them to adult standards on things like character development – if they have redeeming qualities in other areas. As children’s movies go Lemony Sincket is well above average (“average” sets the bar pretty low) in the story and character departments but, in terms of visuals, it’s outstanding by any standard.
When I first heard about Lemony Sincket, I had grave doubts – what is a “Lemony Sincket”? Is this some product placement for a snack food high in processed sugar and trans-fats? I hadn’t heard of the books from which the movie was adapted and the trailers showing Jim Carrey menacing the kids didn’t do much for me. I was pleasantly surprised by the movie.
I want to be careful about exactly how I recommend Lemony Sincket. For adults who don’t share my belief that film is primarily a visual medium and therefore a stunningly visual film is worthwhile in spite of other shortcomings, then you may be disappointed. For kids who are immersed in mainstream pop culture (rap videos, video games, etc.): I don’t think this movie will grab you – in fact, you probably have no intention of seeing it since you have a good idea of what it is. For everybody else, I recommend Lemony Sincket as a gorgeously dark trip to an imaginary world concocted by some top-flight artists. And don’t even think of waiting for it on DVD – it just won’t be the same as the theatrical experience.
Special note: Look at the [make-believe] magazine in Jim Carrey’s hands in the photo at the top of this page. The face on the cover is Lon Chaney as the Phantom in the 1925 silent classic The Phantom of the Opera. I’m sure that the filmmakers knew that the release date of Lemony Sincket is only a week before the release of The Phantom of the Opera (2004 version) -- it’s not a coincidence that they chose that particular magazine.
Special note #2: I read that the entire film was shot on studio sets. Didn’t those “exterior” shots look impressive? I am rooting for Lemony Sincket in Oscar categories such as production design and art direction – I hope that it gets nominated at a minimum.
Photographs are copyright Paramount Pictures.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.