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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (April 16/05)

Based on the Lemony Snicket novels by Daniel Handler, A Series of Unfortunate Events would seem to be far too scary for smaller children (the movie opens with the death of the three central characters' parents and Jim Carrey's Count Olaf is essentially a homicidal maniac). Then again, the novels have purportedly been geared towards young readers and the film was something of a hit, so one would imagine that today's kids aren't frightened by such things (I surely would have had nightmares for a week had I been exposed to this as a child).

A Series of Unfortunate Events plays out like a Roald Dahl novel crossed with Tim Burton's off-kilter sense of style, as the film clearly occurs in a universe of its own (there's very little here that's reminiscent of the so-called "real world"). The story revolves around the Baudelaire children - reader Klaus (Liam Aiken), inventor Violet (Emily Browning), and biter Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) - as they are sent to live with an evil, scheming relative named Count Olaf after their parents die in a mysterious fire. The kids quickly figure out that Olaf is only interested in their inheritance, and would like nothing more than to see them dead (as Olaf is obviously an idiot, the siblings are able to outsmart him on every turn).

While A Series of Unfortunate Events is sporadically amusing, it's mostly surprisingly dull - no small feat given the incredibly impressive set design and Carrey's scenery-chewing performance. In terms of the latter, Carrey seems to be having a grand old time here, but there's no denying that his over-the-top antics become awfully tiresome almost immediately. In the context of a silly comedy like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, such hijinks are actually beneficial to the film (it doesn't hurt that Carrey was actually funny in that movie, something that's certainly not the case here). But stepping into the shoes of Count Olaf (along with a variety of disguises donned by the character throughout the film), Carrey delivers a broad performance that's more distracting than anything else.

The rest of the cast, on the other hand, is surprisingly effective, particularly Aiken and Browning as the two older Baudelaire siblings. Cameo appearances from folks like Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman temporary elevate the film to something that's at least watchable, though that doesn't last too long. The problem lies with Robert Gordon's screenplay, which - although it's presumably quite faithful to Handler's books - feels like a series of wacky vignettes loosely strung together. As a result, A Series of Unfortunate Events' pace is incredibly uneven, veering wildly from kind of intriguing to flat-out boring. Director Brad Silberling tries his best to infuse the story with energetic visuals, but more often that not, his efforts just come off as derivative and bland (as impossible as that may sound).

It seems clear that one's ability to enjoy A Series of Unfortunate Events depends almost entirely on one's familiarity with Handler's novels, as the movie's lack of backstory (coupled with the obvious omission of certain key events from the source material) make it virtually impenetrable by a Lemony Snicket neophyte.

out of

About the DVD: Paramount Pictures presents Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events with a crystal clear letterboxed transfer, along with a plethora of intriguing supplemental materials. The disc comes with two commentary tracks, one featuring director Silberling and the other featuring Silberling and "the real Lemony Snicket" (the former is actually quite interesting, while the latter is probably best left for the fans). Also included is an elaborate, informative behind-the-scenes documentary and two deleted scenes.
© David Nusair