Film

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Elastic and not a little ewwwy, Jim Carrey's Olaf is fond of his own unclever pronouncements and unsubtle when it comes to plotting.


Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events

Director: Brad Siberling
Cast: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Jude Law, Billy Connolly
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-12-17
The hardest part about show business is acting off camera, you know?
-- Jim Carrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show, 24 November 2004

Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) is an actor, with troupe-mates who laugh at his bad jokes and slither a little when they walk. A dark and dastardly sort, not to mention loud and ghastly as only Jim Carrey can be, he's also greedy. That is, he's pleased to have three about-to-be-wealthy orphans arrive on his doorstep. He makes his glee plain in his concerted efforts to greet them properly, with their names scribbled onto his palms and his eyebrows twitching acrobatically when he leans down to coo over them. "I am your beloved Count Olaf," he declares. "I must say, you're skinny-looking bunch."

Elastic and not a little ewwwy, Olaf is fond of his own unclever pronouncements ("Imagine my surpreese!") and unsubtle when it comes to plotting a "series of unfortunate events" to befall the kiddies. This even as his story -- and the children's -- is narrated by one Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, and here played in lanky silhouette bent over a manual typewriter by Jude Law (winner of this year's Michael Caine Award for Appearing in Altogether Too Many Movies). As this know-it-all narrator informs you, Olaf's young charges are left alone by a sudden fire that burns their manse and parents. (Why the parents are home and the kids are off alone is unknown; they must be orphaned and so they are.)

Prone to exchanging significant glances, each of the Baudelaire children is assigned by your narrator an identifying trait. Fourteen-year-old Violet (Emily Browning) invents things, Klaus (Liam Aiken, who earns points for surviving Good Boy!) is a reader, and cute little Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) is a biter. She's also a bit of a ham, and given to digitized lurches and gestures, though she's awfully cute and so is granted the lion's share of reaction shots, not to mention subtitles, so that her gurgles reveal sanctimonious insights into the adults who would rule their world (calling them names or otherwise undermining their obviously questionable authority, as in, "Bite me").

The kids are first looked after by the snuffly executor of their parents' estate, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), who takes to depositing them serially, as each prospective caretaker ends up being unethical or dead. The first and most persistent is Olaf; after the failure of his first idea (to lock the children in a car to be squished by an oncoming train), he undertakes to disguise himself -- as a nerdy scholar, a peg-legged sea captain -- in order to regain access to their fortune. Only the children see through his wigs and affectations, which makes them increasingly untrusting of adults to provide the sanctuary they so desire.

Based on three Snicket books, the film mostly takes the kids' perspective, and so delights in the gooey and the ooky, even it posits their admirable morality and endless ingenuity. And of course, all this kiddish cleverness is underlined in their outfits and demeanors -- sensitive yet rebellious, sweet yet edgy. In a word, goth-lite. Violet's perfectly part-braid hair, fishnet sleeves, and black boots, Klaus' button trousers, and little Sunny's Victorianish dresses all suggest these kids are classically under duress, but never unkempt, only a little out of time. As they endeavor to escape the clutches of the odious Olaf, they come briefly into the care of other non-relatives, including the terminally cheerful snake-lover Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and the unreservedly phobic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), who warns the children not to stand near the Fridgidaire, for "If it falls, it will crush you flat."

Each "event" engineered by Olaf briefly endangers the children. And every time, they figure a brilliant escape, leading their nemesis to grander and more awful schemes, which include killing off several characters and even arranging for his marriage to Violet. Such violence is of a piece with the terrible accidents and nefarious deeds that drive most fairy tales: in A Series of Unfortunate Events, most of dismembering and penetrating takes place off screen anyway, which only makes it (appropriately) yuckier. And of course, it's a common business to orphan children in children's fare (see: Shirley Temple movies, Heidi, and Little Orphan Annie), and then deploy subsequent hardships to emphasize their ethical and other fortitudes.

The Baudelaire children survive because they stick together -- each of their special gifts is crucial, they comfort one another when they're most depressed. They learn the usual lessons, for instance, that home is not necessarily traditional, but really anyplace where you feel safe, a sanctuary amid turmoil. And so, while they may be ensconced in scary attics or a cave alongside the appalling Lake Lacrimose (where leeches with teeth leap onto rowboats in order to chew up their victims in minutes), the kids maintain their difference. Not so Olaf, whose bizarre appearances -- from his mutton chops to his hook nose to his plaid pants -- rather fit such environments. Slightly less able to blend in to the cartoonish ruckus, the well-meaning but repeatedly outfoxed detective played by Cedric the Entertainer shows up intermittently, looking for all the world like he's wandered into the wrong movie.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.