The key word in the mouthful of a movie title "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" is "series."
(And you probably thought it was going to be "of." Ha!)
The film is based on the first three children's books by Lemony Snicket (the author's name is actually Daniel Handler) about a trio of orphans trying to defend themselves from the dastardly Count Olaf, who disguises himself in various ways and tries to bump them off to steal their inheritance.
That inherently episodic structure ends up weakening the film from director Brad Silberling ("Moonlight Mile") and writer Robert Gordon ("Men in Black II"), stripping it of a strong narrative drive.
Instead, the movie moves from one adventure - or rather, one elaborately detailed set piece - to the next. The children end up in the custody of different guardians, all of them mysterious "aunts" and "uncles" of their parents, who died in a fire.
It is indeed fantastic looking in a dark, twisted, Tim Burtonesque way - probably because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also shot "Sleepy Hollow," and production designer Rick Heinrichs and costumer Colleen Atwood are longtime Burton collaborators.
Then, of course, there is Jim Carrey as Count Olaf in all his thinly veiled incarnations, inhabiting one intentionally idiosyncratic character after another. In his pursuit of the Baudelaire children - inventive Violet (Emily Browning), bookish Klaus (Liam Aiken) and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) - he also pretends to be a confused Italian lab assistant and the peg-legged Captain Sam (pronounced "Sham").
But really, all these characters have shadings of Carrey's rubbery comedic shtick, his trademark from "In Living Color" to "The Mask" to the "Ace Ventura" movies. (Call me crazy, but I prefer Carrey when he calms down and actually acts. He's done his best work in movies like "The Truman Show" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.")
"Lemony Snicket" also allows him to bounce off one celebrity co-star after another, with some clever cameos that aren't billed (and you won't find the surprise ruined here). Meryl Streep seems to be having the time of her life in a rare goofy role as the children's Aunt Josephine, who's afraid of everything (the welcome mat, the refrigerator, the doorknobs) in her Tudor monstrosity of a house built on stilts on a cliff overlooking Lake Lachrymose.
And Scottish comedian Billy Connolly provides one of the film's few sources of warmth as Uncle Monty, a snake expert who wants to bring the children with him on an adventure in Peru until Olaf steps in and ruins things.
Another star who's heard but not seen - which truly is an unfortunate event - is Jude Law, who narrates the film as Lemony Snicket and gets some of the best darkly funny lines.
"This is an excellent opportunity to run out of the theater, living room or airplane where this film is being shown," the British actor warns early on.
Along those lines, I wouldn't think this movie would be too terribly scary for most kids, since Carrey's performance is so intentionally cartoonish. But some children were shielding their eyes during a Sunday-morning screening I attended, and the filmmakers have said the material is appropriate for 8-year-olds and up.
Speaking of children, the young stars of "Lemony Snicket" are absolutely lovely together, and the older two, Browning and Aiken, truly look and act like brother and sister. (I could have used a little less of the cutesy conceit in which baby Sunny's coos and gurgles are translated into slangy subtitles, though.)
The way they support each other while generally outsmarting every adult they meet is among the strongest elements in an otherwise, and unfortunately, uneven film.
"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," a Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures release, is rated PG for thematic elements, scary situations and brief language. Running time: 106 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
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