12.19.2004

The Fortune of the Unfortunate

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (the site is rather cleverly put together) [clips] has much marvelous atmosphere to enjoy. Its claustrophobic feel is somehow reminiscent of stage plays that require your imagination to extend the world--that is, its reality brings out a sense of unreality in every location: a house teetering on precipice, a herpetologist's house, and an ocean that feels oddly like a back water pond. The period feel is also strange--houses and dress are Victorian but they drive cars and use some mechanisms that don't even exist in this present alternate universe. The characters are all characters--that is, people with distinctive traits and personalities: The baby's a smart-ass biter, Violet's an inventor, Klaus a book fiend who must have a kind of eidetic memory to put to use what he's read, their aunt a grammarian paranoic, and a distant uncle, Count Olaf, will stop at nothing to gain the three children's fortune.

The language of the film--i.e. "unfortunate events," "this is not a film for those who want to watch a happy little elf" and so on--create the impression that this will be depressing. Not so (in this I felt Ebert, while on-target elsewhere, missed the boat). True, the events themselves have the makings of major downers, but the children make do in whatever dire circumstance they find themselves in. If their opponents are clever, they are more so. There's much sleight of hand to enjoy: the language, the aforementioned filmatography, characters' games and resposes. You'll have to look beyond what you're told or what you see.

One strength and flaw is Jim Carey as Count Olaf. While he has great diversity and plays Olaf in various disguises with surprising grace, it seems he also overplays his character, tilting the game toward too much slapstick. Likewise, the draw of the characters' powerful distinctivenesses never quite achieves any reach beyond distinction. Dustin Hoffman has three lines and they're probably three of the best in the film. The thinness of characters, however, did not detract much from my pleasure of the film. There's just too much else to love.

My companion, however, took exception to the ending as unsatisfying. This may be true for those who expect complete resolution. But the ending rather surprised me in how much it worked. It brings back up previous scenes to deliver its sense to the audience, recasting the events under a new lens (this may be the key for why I didn't feel they cheated us). I will submit that if they try to pull the same story structure for the following film--if made--they'll risk boring the audience with monotony. Yet it is a film well worth seeing on the big screen, and if the movie's homepage is any example of things to come, it may be well worth owning when it comes out on DVD.

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