Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Starring Jim Carrey, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Billy Connolly, Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music by Thomas Newman
Edited by Michael Kahn
Written by Robert Gordon
Directed by Brad Silberling
Rating: 6,5 out of 10
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is awkward, but not in the way it wants to be. It wants to be Tim Burton-awkward, with strange characters in a weird world full of unusual locations, visual effects and props. And it has all of those ingredients, but its tone is what is really strange about it. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but I personally didn’t think it was very funny. Jim Carrey is so over-the-top and so much of the movie focuses on him that it’s almost distracting, like a one-man-show. I can’t really put my finger on it, but the movie didn’t work for me. I’m not even sure what its intended audience is as many jokes are not for kids but overall the movie isn’t all that appealing for adults either.
The movie deals with some serious and dark subject matters. The whole movie starts with a "satire” of a typical children’s movie only to make clear that this is a different kind of movie, a dark one. Again, I don’t know why, but the winkiness of this bothered me because I felt like the movie doesn’t have anything really to say. I don’t like idyllic children’s stories either but what is the alternative? Dark and fucked up children’s stories? If they are well done, why not. But this seems to be dark and edgy just for the sake of it.
We have three kids (Liam Aiken, Emily Browning and Kara and Shelby Hoffman) whose parents suddenly die in a fire. This setup already includes some issues I found problematic. The narrator tells us that we can’t imagine how they felt if we haven’t lost anyone. Fair enough. But the movie never tries to make us understand. The children all seem completely detached, no tears, not even a sad face, just those uncanny adult stares they wear throughout the movie. They seem completely detached from their emotions and it is maybe not surprising that we never see their parents or their emotions. They seem completely absent even before they die and so it’s not surprising that their children are typical victims of our detachment culture. The movie observes that well but never comments on it in any way, making it unclear if it is aware of it or just accepts it as the way things are.
And then Jim Carrey appears as Count Olaf and takes the movie over. It’s a really odd moment because it so clearly is Carrey trying to give the best show ever. Anyway, when he asks the kids why they look so grim they say it’s because their parents just died. There is this moment where he expresses he is sorry, corrects himself and gives it another try. This was a moment where Carrey fell out of his role and they kept it in the movie but this moment is so symbolic for the whole movie. The kids don’t look grim and he doesn’t feel sorry because no one in this movie shows any kind of emotions. Or, if there are emotions, they are totally overdone and obviously just played and not felt. We are supposed to dislike Olaf for pretending so much but he just pretends because he is as detached as everyone else.
No, the main thrust of the story comes from Olaf trying to kill of the kids to get their inheritance. What follows is him trying to murder them in creative ways and then the foster parents they end up with. Does this sound like fun? It isn’t, I think. One problem is that you’re never entirely sure if you’re supposed to like the new parents better than Olaf. Or what you are supposed to think of Olaf in the first place. He acts like a villain but he is also (supposedly) entertaining. The other parents (Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep) seem somewhat better but are still so eccentric and only mildly concerned about the kids that it is hard to root for them (and since they are killed off, we don’t really miss them anyway).
So what is the intention of the movie? What does it want to tell kids? That you shouldn’t trust adults? That doesn’t really make sense. That you shouldn’t trust suspicious adults? That would be a weird thing, too, especially since the kids in the movie never trust Olaf for a second, so there is not really a lesson here. That, as a kid, you shouldn’t think you’re stupid because if you only use your knowledge and skills and ideas, you can even beat a villain like Olaf? Well, you see the appeal of this lesson, right? And it’s not a bad lesson per see because kids are underestimated all the time and the kids here are extremely intelligent and capable of coming up with elaborate ideas. But in a movie so void of emotions to have a lesson that is all about reason and thought, the lesson ultimately is that you really don’t need your emotions after all. In the end, the kids are alone, having to live by themselves (which is seen as a good thing, because they’re “independent”) and living with the fantasy image of their parents that they never had in reality. It’s a story about detached kids embracing their detachment and never opening their vault of emotions. They have to get used to living only with the shadows of their parents, so that they also live with only a thin surface of themselves. I don’t think that’s a lesson kids need to learn in our culture because it’s instilled in them from the get-go.