DIRECTED BY: Brad Silberling
FEATURING: Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, Jim Carrey, Billy Connolly, Meryl Streep, Jude Law
PLOT: After the brainy Baudelaire children—Violet (Browning), Klaus (Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are orphaned, they move in with their closest living relative, the sinister ham actor Count Olaf (Carrey). Soon after turning the kids into his servants, Cinderella-style, Olaf simply decides to kill them so that he can inherit their parents’ enormous wealth. Will the children’s kindly, snake-loving Uncle Monty (Connolly) and severely phobic Aunt Josephine (Streep) come to their aid? Or are their lives fated to be a series of unfortunate events?
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While highly enjoyable in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way (more on that later), this black comedy for kids is all too reminiscent of earlier, similar tales from the likes of Roald Dahl, Charles Addams, and Edward Gorey. It’s definitely quirky, but not really all that weird.
COMMENTS: After the staggering success of the Harry Potter franchise, every movie studio in town was looking for a series of fantastical young adult novels that could profitably be filmed. One of the most artistically and commercially successful films of this period was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is a delightfully mean-spirited good time but also a terribly episodic 107 minutes. This movie is based on Daniel Handler’s first three “Snicket” novels—“The Bad Beginning” (1999), “The Reptile Room” (1999) and “The Wide Window” (1999)—and therein lies the problem. The film, written by Robert Gordon (responsible for the great Galaxy Quest), and narrated in the dulcet tones of Jude Law, is all too clearly an adaptation of three separate books, so that the story seems to resolve itself, than starts up again, than resolves itself again and so forth. There were eventually 13 novels in the series, so sequels to this movie could have been made, but never were. As it is, the film’s curiously stop-and-start pacing is its one great flaw, but almost everything else about it is stellar, particularly the art direction. The movie is set in an indeterminate era; the cars are from the 1950’s, but Meryl Streep dresses like a Dickensian matron. Lemony Snicket features eye-catchingly monochromatic cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, impressive costumes by Colleen Atwood and stunning production design from Rick Heinrichs (indeed, the film was shot entirely on soundstages, like The Wizard of Oz). This is the same cinematographer/costume designer/production designer team that did Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the movie, with its decidedly Grimm sense of humor, is definitely an imitation of Burton’s style—Helena Bonham Carter even has an unbilled cameo—but it’s a highly skilful imitation. (Casper’s Brad Silberling was the actual director.) In fact, Silberling’s movie is more “Burton-esque,” and superior to, some actual Burton films like Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland.
The deadpan performances from the kids, whose characters are constantly threatened with death by train, snake, fire and hurricane, and the delightfully over-the-top turns from Carrey (at his manic best), Streep (who matches his nuttiness), and the always delightful Connolly make the pitiful waste of the all-star supporting cast (including Timothy Spall, Catherine O’Hara, Cedric the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jane Adams, Jennifer Coolidge, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Handler, Jane Lynch, and the voice of Gilbert Gottfried) easier to take. (As recently as 2014, Craig Ferguson used his talk show to good-naturedly grouse about how his “Person of Indeterminate Gender” character was practically cut out of the film). There is also some extremely impressive animation over both the opening and closing credits, which makes the movie worth sitting through in its entirety. It’s all good, dark, unpleasant fun, but not all that much weirder than the average episode of “The Addams Family.” In fact, director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the film Addams Family Values, was originally supposed to direct Unfortunate Events. He later criticized Silberling’s movie for spending too much time on Carrey’s scenery-devouring Count Olaf and not concentrating enough on the Baudelaires.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Director Brad Silberling has essentially made a Tim Burton movie, but without the weird shafts of adolescent pain.”—Ty Burr, “The Boston Globe” (contemporaneous)