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'Dastardly' Good

The Word Here Means 'Lemony Snicket' Is a Fortunate Event

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C01

Rats. Bats. Two-headed cobras and Tibetan three-eyed toads. A runaway train. A violent hurricane. A count who screams, with gleeful wickedness, "You are so deceased!" (then frequently attempts to make good on the promise).

And some truly dreadful leeches looking to suck blood.

The Baudelaires -- played by, from left, Kara (or Shelby) Hoffman, Emily Browning and Liam Aiken -- and Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) in "A Series of Unfortunate Events." (Francois Duhamel -- Paramount Pictures)

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These, my children, are some of the "unfortunate events" that befall the poor Baudelaire orphans in the deliciously dark and eccentric world created by Lemony Snicket, whose riveting tales now span 11 books' worth of misery and misfortune.

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" plucks its story from the first three volumes and is narrated by the deadpan Snicket, who repeatedly cautions his readers -- and now viewers -- that life in the Baudelaires' world rarely, if ever, turns out as one would hope.

"The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant," warns Snicket (Jude Law) at the start. He then ticks off many of the monstrosities to come, and recommends a relocation to another theater if, perchance, you are the sort of person who would prefer "happy little elf" tales.

Do not take his advice.

"Lemony Snicket" is a gem of a movie, all its adversity and wickedness a backdrop for a story about the remarkable resilience of children who trust in their own knowledge and inventiveness. Perhaps "no one listens to children," as they are told in the film, and perhaps their world is exceptionally calamitous, but the Baudelaires intrepidly toil on, nonetheless.

Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken) and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) learn of the first "extremely unfortunate event" to befall their lives at the start of the film, when family banker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) informs them that their parents have perished in a fire that burned the family home to the ground.

Now orphans, the three children are packed up and taken to a dreadfully dirty and dilapidated mansion to live with their distant relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who declares, with a flourish: "I will raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted."

What the bizarre and diabolical count truly wants, however, is the Baudelaire fortune. What follows is a series of daunting and dangerous moments as the children escape Olaf only to find themselves moving from guardian to guardian, with the count -- in mad disguise -- stalking them at every turn.

Directed by Brad Silberling, the film has a Tim Burton-like visual feel, which is unsurprising given that the production designer is Rick Heinrichs, a frequent Burton collaborator ("The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Sleepy Hollow"). The visuals are dark and ominous without getting totally terrifying -- the characters feel real, but their environment is off-kilter enough to remind you that this world is one of imagination.

As Olaf, a failed thespian, Carrey plays his part with far more comedy and character than the actual count in Daniel Handler's books, which is both a good and bad thing. At times he is wickedly amusing; at other moments he becomes a distraction, co-opting Olaf into so much of a Jim Carrey vehicle that it's impossible not to summon up memories of prior Carrey roles ("The Mask," "Ace Ventura") -- at least for those viewers old enough to have seen him as something other than the Grinch.

The children, on the other hand, seem naturally at home in the Lemony Snicket world. Browning and Aiken, consistently wonderful, come across as neither too dark nor too earnest; instead they are, perfectly, like siblings just trying to get through whatever befalls their day. Violet is an ingenious inventor, Klaus ferociously well-read; together they use their gifts to extricate themselves from mayhem with spunk and smarts. Baby Sunny, whose chief skill is biting, is mainly a prop, though an amusing one -- since she is unable to speak in anything but gibberish, her utterings (translated through subtitles) are used for some laugh-producing one-liners:

"Back off, parrot face" (Sunny's reaction to Count Olaf).

"She's the mayor of crazy town!" She would be Meryl Streep, who is terrific as highly neurotic Aunt Josephine, who lives in a house perched perilously over the aptly named Lake Lachrymose. Aunt Josephine is fearful of everything: radiators, the refrigerator, doorknobs (which, she says, could shatter suddenly and put out an eye), even real estate agents.

What happens to Aunt Jo we shall not reveal, just as we shan't say what happens to warmhearted, reptile-loving Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) or even to the orphans themselves. Suffice to say that there is much that's unfortunate. Truly, enthrallingly unfortunate, that is.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for implied violence and, well, a series of unfortunate events.

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