The adapters of Daniel Handler's initial three Lemony Snicket adventure books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window) haven't made a film of them, exactly. They've turned them into chapters of a celluloid pop-up book. Each new setting springs into view like a marvelous cut-out contraption.
At first, a viewer's eyes open wide to take everything in: a decrepit home straight out of a Dickens nightmare, a snake room that resembles a jolly kid's equivalent of the hothouse in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and a cobble-and-slate harbor site with a wishbone-shaped entrance carrying the name "Damocles Dock."
But Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn't allow you to pretend that you're willing grand vistas into being - one of the great pleasures of elaborate pop-up books filled with gimmicky folds and levers. Eventually, the film's director, Brad Silberling, lays everything out for you, right in front of your nose.
In Robert Gordon's script, Handler's hilariously literate bouts of psychological torture develop no consistent tone, voice or momentum. Handler writes droll, deliciously extended Gothic calamities for kids and sardonic adults. The movie gives us rickety cliffhangers with tension-deflating punch lines and a message of family solidarity.
True to Handler's first three narratives (collected in a 2001 boxed set aptly named A Box of Unfortunate Events), a house fire orphans Klaus, Violet and Sunny Baudelaire and puts these resourceful children in the care of (in turn) the bad actor Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), the ebullient herpetologist Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and the ditzy lakeside widow Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep).
Just as they do in Handler's prose oddities, the loyal, feisty sisters and brother use their powers of invention (Violet), book-learning (Klaus) and biting (the infant Sunny) to preserve their precarious family unit. And like their very own version of Peter Sellers' Clare Quilty from Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Carrey's Count Olaf keeps appearing in one see-through disguise after another, never giving up on wresting the Baudelaire fortune for himself.
But the way screenwriter Gordon and director Silberling adapt roughly 600 sub-compact pages of fiction, there's nothing to discover after the emergence of one new major character, or newly camouflaged old character, per site.
Playing a bad actor in every sense, Carrey has a grand time italicizing his body language and funny faces. With his unibrow and protruding schnoz, the undisguised Olaf is like Frida Kahlo crossed with Fagin, on stilts. Olaf's disguises, though, fall flat, and Carrey's hamming overpowers the blah juvenile leads, Liam Aiken and Emily Browning.
Rather than try to calm Carrey down, Meryl Streep hypes Aunt Josephine's histrionics to fit the star's hysteria. She may give even diehard Lemony - or Streep - cultists a bad case of the fidgets. Only the baby team of Kara and Shelby Hoffman, as Sunny, bring a bloom to the occasion. They have infantile "It."
Bathed in a melancholy yet somehow comic light, the movie might have been a triumph of cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and production design (Rick Heinrichs) if either the filmmakers or the troupe had caught real fire. Instead, it's just the latest proof that even in stylish, one-note fantasies, looks aren't everything.
Starring Jim Carrey, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Kara and Shelby Hoffman
Directed Brad Silberling
Released by Paramount
Time 108 minutes
SUN SCORE 2 stars (**)