When a movie tells its story through voiceover narration, it's usually a bad sign.
Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. (Paramount)
Unfortunately, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" does just that and relies on a shadowy narrator (Jude Law), who tells the audience about all the terrible things that happen to the Baudelaire children.
"Snicket" is based on a series of children's books focusing on the misfortune that follows these children—two girls and one boy, all newly orphaned after their parents are killed in a fire.
We meet the children as they are spirited away by Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) to their closest relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Olaf wants to kill the children and claim their fortune, so he plans all manner of "accidents." One bad thing follows another.
Olaf's antics, however, cost him custody of the children, and they go to live with Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a famous herpetologist who lives in a mansion full of snakes. When Monty sends the children on an expedition to Peru, Olaf—being an actor and adept at makeup—turns up as an assistant. The children recognize Olaf despite the disguise, but Uncle Billy is slow to see.
The children then go to live with Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), who lives in a mansion built on questionable supports over a lake. Josephine is a grammar nut, but—even nuttier—is an agoraphobic and seemingly afraid of everything (except the condition of her house, which is about as stable as she is).
"Snicket" works in dark shadows and tones, hearkening back to the early work of Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands") and Barry Sonnenfeld ("The Addams Family"), the latter of whom is an executive producer on this movie. "Snicket," however, lacks some of the whimsy of those other popular films.
Jim Carrey makes Count Olaf oafish, and his performance is too over the top—even for Jim Carrey. All the adults in the movie appear stupid and dim-witted, which may be what the books' author—Daniel Handler—wants, but nevertheless no adults possess any redeeming values.
Furthermore, the children lack any emotion. They have just lost their parents, yet they shake it off like winter cold on entering a warm house.
The fatalism and near nihilism of the story overshadow some important themes, most notably holding to family bonds in spite of bad fortune.
"Snicket" is the first of a series of movies, and one wonders if the sequel will be better. This one misses the mark, but there is hope, for family themes are good ones to tackle.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary situations and brief language.
Director: Brad Silberling
Writer: Robert Gordon (based on a series of books by Daniel Handler)
Cast: Count Olaf: Jim Carrey; Violet Baudelaire: Emily Browning; Klaus Baudelaire: Liam Aiken; Aunt Josephine: Meryl Streep; Lemony Snicket: Jude Law; Sunny: Kara and Shelby Hoffman; Mr. Poe: Timothy Spall; Justice Straus: Catherine O'Hara; Uncle Monty: Billy Connolly.
The movie's official Web site is here.