Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events Review

Three orphaned children are adopted by a wicked relative hellbent on murdering them and stealing their inheritance in this blockbuster movie adaptation of the popular Lemony Snicket series of children’s books. Jim Carrey stars as the evil Count Olaf. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

Warning: The last paragraph of this review discusses the ending and contains spoilers.

Jim Carrey gets his best comic showcase since The Mask in Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, which casts him as the deliciously evil Count Olaf, the fiend who takes in the orphaned Baudilaire children so he can murder them and steal their inheritance. When he isn’t plotting nefarious deeds, Count Olaf is a stage actor – a pretentious old ham followed around by his sycophantic troupe – and that’s all the excuse Carrey needs to turn him into an outrageously over the top send-up of pompous theatre luvvies. If you hate Carrey’s leering, mugging, anything-for-a-laugh brand of comedy, this won’t convert you but for the rest of us, watching him at his most devilish is a rare treat.

Based on the first three Lemony Snicket books (there are eleven to date) and narrated by a suitably gloomy Jude Law, A Series Of Unfortunate Events tells of the terrible tragedies that befall the three Baudilaire children. These are Violet (Emily Browning), a brilliant young inventor, Klaus (Liam Aitken), a bookworm who remembers everything he reads and the infant Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), who likes to bite things – and whose subtitled gurgles get some of the biggest laughs in the film. The Baudilaires are orphaned when their parents perish in a mysterious fire and things go from bad to worse when Mr Poe (Timothy Spall), the estate’s doddering executor, places them in the custody of the sinister Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who claims to be a distant cousin. As soon as Poe is out the door, Olaf drops his sympathetic facade, locks them up and turns them into his slaves, while waiting for an opportune moment to arrange an accident. When his plans fail and the children are passed along to other relatives (Billy Connolly’s snake-obsessed uncle and Meryl Streep’s phobic aunt), Olaf uses his dubious acting talents to re-appear in bizarre disguises and ruin their chances of happiness.

This is an admirably dark premise for mainstream family entertainment, one that Roald Dahl might have appreciated and one which has made the books huge bestsellers, loved by adults and children alike. When the movie was announced, there was concern among the books’ fans that Hollywood would soften the tone and insist upon – horror of horrors – a happy ending. The good news is that, for the most part, the tone is just right. A Series Of Unfortunate Events takes a few minutes to get started – at first the expensive production design overwhelms everything else – but when Jim Carrey appears, the film hits its stride. Carrey is ably supported: the child actors are all excellent, Meryl Streep proves once again she can do comedy as well as she does drama and even Billy Connolly is, for once, well used. The ghoulish black comedy is served up with relish and at its best, the film offers the same pleasures as Beetlejuice and Addams Family Values.

The bad news, and here we must enter the realm of the spoiler, is that despite Jude Law’s assurances to the contrary, the film-makers don’t have the courage to maintain the misery and despair right to the end. They cop out in the last few minutes and do indeed provide us with a happy ending. In fact it’s a gooey, sentimental Hollywood happy ending, which sticks out like a sore thumb after ninety minutes of macabre humour. The obvious culprit would appear to be director Brad Silberling, who has been responsible for some of the most grossly sentimental films of recent years: Casper, City Of Angels and Moonlight Mile (Now there’s a series of unfortunate events!). The annoying thing is that for the most part, he gets the material just right. This is easily Silberling’s best film and might have been a minor classic if he hadn’t allowed his need to make an audience sniffle spoil it. Don’t be put off seeing the film. A Series Of Unfortunate Events has an awful lot going for it: an original concept, a witty script, a great cast and a lot of big laughs. The ending however is… unfortunate.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Dec 21, 2004

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