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A bad case of the willies

Pity those poor orphans. 'Lemony Snicket' looks richly eerie, but beneath the surface there's no sense of dread.

December 17, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The opening scenes of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" are so darkly exhilarating, so lugubriously inventive and so wittily, swooningly macabre that my first reaction, as someone who cheers at even the most tenuous allusion to author and illustrator Edward Gorey, was one of abject gratitude and delight.

The contempo-Victorian world created by production designer Rick Heinrichs, a longtime collaborator of Tim Burton's, is a marvel of God-knows-what period detail and modern-day lifestyle-retailer wish fulfillment. And director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki's ("Sleepy Hollow") chiaroscuro lighting adds considerably to the moody mood. About half an hour later, though, the whole thing goes somewhat episodic and flat, which, considering the good beginning, is a very unfortunate event indeed.

Based on the children's book series (11 and counting) of the same name, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is a tale of unmitigated disaster related in a high Wildean style.

Abruptly orphaned when a fire destroys their mansion and burns their parents to a crisp, the clever Baudelaire children -- Violet (Emily Browning), 14; Klaus (Liam Aiken), 12; and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), about 2 -- are from that point forward ignored, mistreated or worse by shambling pen pushers and sinister miscreants with elaborate manners and bad teeth -- i.e., their banker, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), and their evil uncle, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey): thespian, miscreant and impecunious fancy pants.

If anyone knows his way around the part of scary actor, it's Carrey. If he were any more mannered or baroque here he'd be hanging from a ceiling in Versailles; and I mean this as a wholehearted compliment. Tasteful restraint is not what's called for. Even so, some of his most priceless moments are tossed-off throwaways. (In one scene, he enters the room recounting a story about some "clever girls" who took his kidney. "Imagine my surpreez!")

Upon informing them of their parents' death, Mr. Poe deposits the children at the home of the count, who does not, in fact, plan to "care for these orphans as if they were actually wanted," but to kill them and take their money.

Luckily for them, Violet is an inventor skilled at jury-rigging lifesaving contraptions from whatever's handy; Klaus, an inveterate reader, has the memory of an elephant; and Sunny, a teething infant and skilled biter, is not above applying her teeth to a can of tomatoes.

The children eventually manage to wrest themselves from the count's clutches and land in the homes of yet more relatives they've never heard of.

First, they go to live with Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a devoted herpetologist, and later with Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a phobic cryptologist. Streep is developing a gleefully perverse persona as a loopy, lovable reprobate, and her Aunt Josephine repels (in the best way) as much as she attracts.

The movie collapses author Daniel Handler's first three books into a runaway train of cliffhangers and reversals and gruesome demises. But after a while, the gruesome demises start to get old, which is not the sort of thing one wants in a gruesome demise.

What the movie lacks, alarmingly, is a shriveled black heart, or a big, red tell-tale one pulsing beneath the floorboards -- anything, really, that might infuse it with the sense of true dread that keeps kids coming back for second, third and 11th helpings of the willies.

As it is, "Lemony Snicket" seems somewhat oblivious to the kind of kiddie-horror dread that blooms black and tremulous in the collected works of Dickens, Dahl and Frances Hodgson Burnett; and the black comedy of Gorey or Charles Addams. Maybe it's not the sort of thing that instantly leads to a McDonald's tie-in (then again, please, what isn't?), but it is the kind of thing that makes the plight of wandering orphans involving -- something this otherwise very impressive production is sadly not.

Despite wonderful performances by Carrey, Streep, Spall and Connolly (and delightful cameos by the inexplicably underused Catherine O'Hara, Luis Guzman, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Adams and Dustin Hoffman), it begins to become clear at some point that the Baudelaire orphans, such as they are here, are a little on the dull side.

One suspects that perhaps director Brad Silberling's sensibilities didn't tend naturally toward the phantasmagoric sophistication of the source material. Either that, or there really is a studio law requiring child actors -- particularly those entrusted with appealing to the coveted "tween" demographic -- to strip themselves of any and all expression, gesture, tic, articulation, shred of humor or communicable quirk that might convey anything other than a mildly contemptuous, deadpan seventh-grade "cool."

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