The enormously popularLemony Snicket novels belong to a vitally gloomy strain of kiddie lit that taps into the universal longing for home and family, while joining it to a nasty suspicion that both are inherently hard to find and keep. This may strike adults who believe that family life is going straight to hell as a theme peculiar to our times, but such tales, which have shown remarkable resilience all the way from the Brothers Grimm through Dickens to Roald Dahl, speak to a fundamental human loneliness of which kids are far more aware than we imagine.
That's why being an orphan is a common fantasy of many children, and it's at least part of the reason why all 11 Lemony Snicket novels have made a tidy fortune for their reclusive author, Daniel Handler, whose closely guarded privacy has been blown by the arrival of a big-budget movie that collapses three of his books into one. Brad Silberling, who made only one children's movie, Casper, before taking on the cumbersomely titled Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, faithfully follows the adventures of the three Baudelaire siblings—Violet (Emily Browning), an inventor; Klaus (a very good Liam Aiken), a budding scientist; and baby Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman, at two years old already alumni of General Hospital), who has a useful talent for biting—who were orphaned when their loving parents died in a mysterious fire. Now they spend their time being shunted from one kindly but dubiously qualified caretaker to the next, while fending off their distant relative and legal guardian Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a monster bent on stealing their considerable family fortune.
Silberling has done an admirable job translating the Victorian-Gothic ambiance of Handler's novels. Lemony Snicket, which may be the world's first German Expressionist horror caper for kids, is a triumph of scary housing, from the gutted Baudelaire mansion to Count Olaf's filthy, packrat's abode, to a shack jutting precariously over a churning ocean. But Silberling and writer Robert Gordon have made the fatal error of trying to jolly up the novels, which are often funny but never, ever cute. The children's hapless would-be protectors—Billy Connolly as the snake-festooned Uncle Monty; Meryl Streep as their nervous Nelly of an Aunt Josephine; and Catherine O'Hara as Count Olaf's kindly neighbor Justice Strauss—are played more for farce than pathos. The biggest culprit, of course, is Carrey, who uses Count Olaf as an excuse to mug his way through several other disguises. He's as funny and inventive as ever, but he's constantly winking at his audience. This is something that Handler never does in his books, which, for all their celebration of children's creativity in hurdling obstacles that stand in their way, also trust kids to stay the course of his bleak existentialism. In the Lemony Snicket books, of which there's a wonderful audio version read by Tim Curry, the life of a child is largely about putting out fires and staying afloat on a sea of uncertainty and hostile takeovers. The Victorians may have liked their children more compliant than was necessary, but they never placed upon them, as we selfishly do today, the insufferable burden of being constantly happy.
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LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS was Directed by BRAD SILBERLING; Written by ROBERT GORDON, Based on novels by DANIEL HANDLER; Produced by LAURIE MacDONALD, WALTER F. PARKES and JIM VAN WYCK; and stars Jim Carrey. Now playing countywide.