|For most of the year, we're content to style ourselves as a kind of charming curmudgeon, an asshole with a heart of gold. Which is part of the reason the Lemony Snicket books appeal so much to us. Sure, awful things happen throughout the series---hell, the books are called A Series of Unfortunate Events---but the bad news is always delivered with a tone of gentle pity, and the author's admiration for the beleaguered Baudelaire orphans never dims.
Starting in early November, the gold around our heart begins to tarnish, turn green and shrink. By the second week of December, we're full-blown Scrooges. Or maybe Grinches. Scrinches? Anyway, the movie adaptation of the first three Snicket books came just as we needed it. With a "Squeeee!" of delight to rival the noise of almost any kid in the audience (except, of course, the kicking devilspawn immediately behind us) we clambered into the theater, eager to see some of our favorite mini-novels brought to life.
Part of the books' genius is their art and packaging. The drawings seem set in a world that's Victorian yet modern, more realistic than Tim Burton's imagination, but just as consistent in its execution. And the film sinks gloriously into that world, from the costumes to the landscapes. The Lemony Snicket universe is gloomy, to be sure, but that makes its patches of brightness so much more lovely. Even the beach the Baudelaire children play upon in the beginning of the film, before they receive the news of their parents' death in a fire, looks more like a swamp, but the kids find the fun there.
Following their orphanization, the Baudelaires are sent to live with their closest relation, Count Olaf, in his appallingly unkempt house. Sporting pinstripes and winged eyebrows, Olaf looks like the Reverend Jim from "Taxi" crossed with some Dickensian villain. True to form, rather than embracing the kids as his own, Olaf has them do all manner of unpleasant chores while he concocts schemes to get his eerily elongated hands on the Baudelaire fortune. Dastardly deeds ensue.
The orphans each have a special talent that can come in handy when one's life is threatened by a deranged thespian. Violet, the eldest, tinkers and invents ingenious devices; Klaus, the middle kid, reads voraciously and remembers everything; Sunny, the baby, bites like a Michael Bay historical epic. Although their abilities enable them to escape the count's clutches, it's only a matter of time before he tracks them down, shows up at their new home, inevitably in a ludicrous disguise, and rains misfortune down upon their heads anew.
Because the film is based on three books, it has a rather episodic feel; hence, "Series of Unfortunate Events." The kids start at Chez Olaf, snuggle with snakes at their Uncle Monty's place, then visit their Aunt Josephine's house of mundane horrors before an Olafalicious final act. The movie packs a lot in, but it doesn't have that hyperactive overstuffed feel that so many kids' movies do. In fact, two of its greatest moments take place in near-silence, as the kids create a small sanctuary in Olaf's awful house and as they imagine their burnt mansion restored. The wistful beauty of the books really comes through in those sequences.
But then, the film is near-excellent overall. The performances of Emily Browning as 14-year-old Violet and Liam Aiken as 12-year-old Klaus are refreshingly un-precious. In fact, the only cutesy moments in the film came from the subtitles of baby Sunny's gibberish. (They are, we assure you, much more clever in the books.) What surprised us, though, was how tolerable we found Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. Carrey's been on our shit list for years now, mostly for various mugging-related offenses. But in Olaf Carrey has found a perfect vehicle for his patented tangential flip-outs. In Carrey's hands, Olaf is not only evil and arch, he's bizarre and freakish---which makes for damn fun viewing. You still can't make us watch The Majestic, though. Jimbo ain't redeemed that much.