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.