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On Screen

A Fortunate Series of Scenes

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page WE39

ON THE MORNING of Dec. 11, 2004, the Lemony Snicket Viewing Committee entered a Northwest Washington theater to pass judgment on "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." It was a four-person jury, consisting of three erudite Lemonites: Andrew, 12; Joanna, 10; Charlotte, 13, who are all avid fans of the Lemony books; the fourth member was a gray-haired film critic with poor posture, who was obviously suffering from a low attendance rate at his overpriced gym. As the driver, his role was clear.

Sour Patch candy, popcorn and soda were consumed to assist the adjudication. And the verdict was issued immediately afterward. A curt nod and positive mumble from Andrew indicated a thumbs-up. The same came from Charlotte, who has read all 11 of Daniel Handler's books, thank you, but has grown too old to be goofily enthusiastic. Joanna, who hasn't read all the books yet, was the lone dissenter. We'll get to her reasons later. But Fat Boy the Driver-Critic loved it. And he gets to write this. The aggregate result: good movie, great fun.

Jim Carrey is wickedly funny as Count Olaf, evil guardian of the Baudelaire children: Klaus (Liam Aiken), Violet (Emily Browning) and baby Sunny (played by twins Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman). (Paramount Pictures)

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Why so enjoyable? Reasons abound. But first, this: The three Baudelaire children, the teenage Violet (Emily Browning), her slightly younger brother, Klaus (Liam Aiken), and baby sister Sunny (Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman), have suffered a heartbreaking calamity. Their parents have perished in a house fire, and the palatial homestead is a heap of charred remains.

As the narrator Lemony Snicket (Jude Law, the British actor, who has apparently agreed to appear in every movie released in 2004) tells us, "this is not a film about a happy little elf." This is grim, classic fare -- far more compelling.

The children are informed they are now under the charge of a distant relative, the magnificently repulsive Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), whose contempt for children is palpable. (He calls Sunny a monkey with the same distaste one would use for "rat.") His agenda is clear: He intends to steal their substantial inheritance, which the children cannot enjoy until Sunny is 18. So Olaf will abide these loathsome squirts for now, while he figures out how to dispose of them and reap their fortune.

The children realize what he's up to, but they can't convince banker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), or anyone else about their uncle's intentions. That's their eternal predicament: Adults never believe them. Adults never believe children.

Without getting into the whole saga -- after all, that's the fun of it -- let's talk about the various grown-ups the Baudelaires encounter. After (temporarily) escaping Olaf's clutches, the children are dispatched to another relative, Uncle Monty Montgomery (Billy Connolly), a snake enthusiast who plans to take the three sibs on a snake-procuring adventure in Peru. That is, until a certain gentleman with a strange resemblance to Olaf comes calling. Escaping again, the children move in with their Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), whose hypochondria and paranoia are constant.

"Come away from the fridge," Josephine warns Klaus nervously. "If it falls, it'll crush you flat."

Director Brad Silberling, who made the quirkily smart "Moonlight Mile," has created a deftly dark and amusing tale about beleaguered but spunky children and the eccentric, morally compromised adults who confound them. It's the kind of family movie that parents and children (at least, the ones able to handle this kind of material) can enjoy without either party feeling compromised or bored.

The children are wonderfully distinctive personalities. Violet is deeply resourceful, as she demonstrates when Olaf locks the children into a car parked (accidentally on purpose) on a train track. Klaus's wealth of knowledge, based on deep reading habits, also comes in handy. And Sunny, well, she likes to bite. (We meet her hanging from a dining table, feet off the ground, holding on to the table's edge with her viselike teeth). Although she seems to be all goo-goos and gagas, she has a piquant response (signaled in subtitles) for any adult who underestimates her.

But the star, not too surprisingly, is Carrey. He's grim and menacing but also hysterical. When Mr. Poe first brings the children to Olaf's front door, he bids them enter with a booming "Intrude!" And pretending to be a loving uncle, he assures Poe he will "raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted."

Which brings us to Joanna's criticism: Count Olaf is a humorless villain in the book. He's not amusing like Carrey at all. And admittedly, there is no scene in which the children are trapped in a car in front of a rushing train. To which I would counter: If you can't let Carrey be Carrey, put someone boring and less expensive in the role. In his various disguises, as a fake snake expert and a salty dog with a long pipe, he's rubbery, inventive and improvisationally inspired. I particularly liked his passing imitation of a dinosaur. He may be embellishing madly, but it's entertaining stuff indeed. Those walking into the film with purist expectations may be setting themselves up for some disappointment, but I daresay most viewers will enjoy themselves. I already look forward to the next one. After all, there are 11 books' worth of material.

LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (PG, 108 minutes) -- Contains danger and suspense and dark material. Area theaters.

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