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Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Here's to larger-than-life fairy tales

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Lemony Snicket no Yo nimo Fushiawase na Monogatari
Director: Brad Siberling
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Many of my junior-high memories have been -- mercifully -- so deeply repressed in my brain that they emerge only clouded in the abstraction of dreams. Or, more likely, nightmares. One memory, however, I couldn't forget if I tried is that of Mr. Bobbit, the mad drama teacher who occasionally subbed in my English class. The reason I will never forget dear old Bobbit is that I have permanent scars on the inside of my cheeks from biting them so hard so as to not burst into uncontrollable howls of laughter. Mr. Bobbit treated every class as a drama, and would prance about the room, erupting into hyperenunciated monologues that regularly escalated into Shakespearean ravings we could barely keep up with.

News photo
Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and Jim Carrey in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (c)2005 DREAMWORKS LLC AND PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

There's something about the airs and affectations of the stage, with their larger-than-life theatricality, that becomes a bit ridiculous at close proximity (which is one reason why big-screen acting has constantly moved toward naturalness and a less-is-more approach over the past few decades).

It was with some surprise, and with about as much painful laughter, that I found the spirit of Bobbit channeled through Jim Carrey as the evil Count Olaf in "Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events," the riotous adaptation of Daniel Sandler's Gothic children's books. True, Bobbit was far from evil, but otherwise Carrey's creation here is a perfect match: the over-intense gaze, the campy showmanship and the sort of logorrhea that comes with those who love to roll their vowels around in their mouths like ice cubes.

Carrey is almost unrecognizable here. He's bald, with wing-tip eyebrows and a goat's beard, but it's understandable that his heavily madeup performance in another children's film, "Grinch," didn't necessarily lift expectations for "Lemony Snicket." Nevertheless, he does a great job, mugging it up as the wicked uncle whom the three Baudelaire children -- Violet, Klaus and biting baby Sunny -- are entrusted to when their parents die in a mysterious fire. Olaf is a second-rate stage actor with dreams of stardom, and he plans to steal the children's inheritance by quickly removing them from the picture, i.e. kill them dead.

Wicked Count Olaf is a familiar figure from fairy tales, but also the sort of adult most children will recognize -- that old geezer who sees kids as nothing more than a nuisance. The fear of abandonment -- so common a device in kids' flicks, from "Bambi" right on down -- is reflected here as the orphans are shunted from relative to relative, all the while seeking a little peace and stability. Meanwhile, the stealthy Olaf remains in hot pursuit, assuming a variety of disguises (which, of course, allows Carrey to indulge in a number of character shticks).

To its credit, the world of "Lemony Snicket" is pure fairy-tale, albeit one of the more demented variety, a place where the Gothic set design of Rick Heinrichs ("Sleepy Hollow," "Edward Scissorshands") has been allowed to run amok. Olaf lives in a decrepit, haunted house -- dwelling behind iron gates, but right next to white-picket fence suburbia. Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) -- who takes custody of the kids after Olaf tries to off them by locking them in a car parked on train tracks -- lives in a house crawling with reptiles, including a two-headed cobra and a Tibetan Third-Eye Toad.

Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep, delightfully ditzy), the next guardian in line, lives in a creepy house precariously perched on the gray cliffs of Lake Lachrymose: When the kids shut the door, the whole house rattles and shakes. Be careful, says their paranoid aunt, the doorknobs may explode. The kids shake their heads ("Somebody's been to Crazy Town," murmurs Klaus), but another amusing surprise awaits.

Liam Aiken and Emily Browning show calm, clever presence as Klaus and Violet, trying to rationally deal with the insanity around them, whether it's making dinner for Olaf in a kitchen where the most edible items crawl on eight legs, or trying to rescue their aunt from a swarm of carnivorous leeches on Lake Lachrymose.

Swarms of flesh-eating leeches are a Hunter S. Thompson-esque touch of craziness that sets "Lemony Snicket" apart from the Harry Potters out there, accurately reflecting the sensibility of author Sandler. "If you are interested in stories with happy endings," he wrote in Book One, "you would be better off reading another book." That riff is expanded on in the movie, capping the most hilarious sucker-punch false beginning to a film since "City of Lost Children." (I spent several minutes thinking I'd walked in on the wrong film.)

However good the film is, though, it's absolutely trumped by its end credits, which feature an endlessly clever bit of animation done in the purest Edward Gorey style. It's that sort of ambience the film aspires to: dark, but deliciously so. Younger viewers need fear nothing as terrifying as those howling wraiths in the last "Harry Potter" -- though a permanent distrust of campy thespians may be in the offing. Mr. Bobbit would, no doubt, be dismayed.

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