Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (Brad Silberling, 2004) Oh, sure. For Hallowe'en on this site we featured flesh-eating zombies and vengeful demons and dead souls that wouldn't stay dead. But in the warm comfort of the domicile, many flights of stairs from the garret in which this is written, the Hallowe'en movie of choice was this (to be heretofore crunched to "Unfortunate Events" to avoid a cramp). It might be the best movie Barry Sonnenfeld never made. It has his insensibility, his florid camera moves,* snappy editing, austere framing and live-action cartoonish gambits (lots of shots of peoples' faces gaping into the camera).

But, it didn't have enough budget and so
Brad Silberling took over the project.

Silberling is a chameleonic director; he tends to take on the characteristics of whatever project falls into his lap—handy for his long tenure as a television director of such idiosyncratic shows as "
NYPD Blue," but making him hard to pin down as a feature director. How do you explain the disparity between "Unfortunate Events" and his unfortunate "City of Angels?" Before you attempt that, let me trump it by adding the even more unfortunate Will Ferrell vehicle, "Land of the Lost ."

So, it's perhaps fortunate for Silberling that so much of "Unfortunate Events" depends on others. The
Lemony Snicket-styled writing—a bit like "Miss Manners" without her morning pick-me-up—of dark, despairing fore-shadowing** inspires a switch-back Rankin-Bass-styled opening that comes crashing to a halt. ("This would be an excellent time to walk out of the theater, living room, or airplane where this film is being shown." says the Lemony Narrator, as read by Jude Law)

"Fade to Black" is the more appropriate phrase. Fade to monochromatic gothic steam-punk macabre, (which permeates the film, like a lighter version of "
The Addams Family") as the film takes up the sad misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphans: Violet, a voracious inventor (Emily Browning); Klaus, a voracious reader (Liam Aiken); and Sunny, a voracious biter (Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman). When their parents are killed in a mysterious fire, the Estate (executed by a piggish Timothy Spall), the kids are shipped off to the cunning clutches of Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a dispicable actor who only cares for the Beaudelaire fortune. Treated as servants by the fiend, he decides to kill them off when it's determined that he'll only get the money when they're adults. And so he leaves them, locked in a car on a rail-road track with the 11:15 barrelling down on them.

What to do, what to do?

Based on the first three "Unfortunate Events" books ("
The Bad Beginning," "The Reptile Room," and "The Wide Window,"), the film is as episodic as could be with the child-endangering machinations of the Count the single unsavory thread running through it. Upon Carrey's every entrance, Silberling takes the wise course of just hanging back, giving Carrey a wide shot (with distorting anamorphic lens) and keeping any other actor out of giggling range. So much of his performance is ad-libbed, you could make the case that it's Carrey who's driving the bus; things calm down considerably when Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep take possession of the children (and the movie), but gears up again when Carrey dervishes his way into the scene (Connolly stays out of his way, but Streep engages him, going eye-to-eye).

It's a good thing, too. "Unfortunate Events" could have turned
excessively mordant to the point of leeching all the fun out of it, production-designed into stasis if Carrey wasn't there to break windows (and characters) in the proceedings. In that spirit, the cast is rounded out by such anarchic spirits as Catherine O'Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Cedric the Entertainer, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Lynch, and Craig Ferguson that flit around the corners to keep things from getting too predictable, and deservedly more than a little off-kilter.

* He started out as the Coen Brothers' cinematographer.

** It's fun when doled out in tea-spoons of dread and low dudgeon, but if you want to hear it overdone, listen to the director and author Daniel Handler's commentary track on the DVD. Handler (as "Lemony Snicket") acts like your staid Aunt Petunia, who goes all-fluttery and horrified at the movie, which is funny for ten minutes, then overstays its two hours.

1 comment:

wheylona said...

I really like this movie. It drags a bit here and there, but it's my perfect companion film for those days where I'm too tired to read or be very social, but it's more entertaining, clever and visually interesting than a mindless romp. And it's one of the few movies where I actually *like* Jim Carrey.