LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTSis under the influence of conflicting impulses. Its tone is part Harry Potter-esque fantasy and part broad Jim Carrey vehicle. The results aren't as entirely incompatible as one might fear, but it's never an easy fit, either.
The UNFORTUNATE EVENTS books by Lemony Snicket (real name Daniel Handler) are designed for those children who have a sense of irony and black humor to go with their whimsy think Roald Dahl for the 21st century. LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is based on three different short volumes THE BAD BEGINNING, THE REPTILE ROOM and THE WIDE WINDOW all woven together into a continuous narrative via Robert Gordon's incident-packed screenplay. With Brad Silberling's direction and Rick Heinrichs' intriguingly Edward Goreyesque, baroque production design, the film instantly evokes the same sort of magical environment as the Harry Potter movies. One of the tonal challenges of EVENTS is that it never seems to be entirely certain whether and when its young heroes should be at home in the baroque environment and when they are meant to react to things they encounter as genuinely bizarre.
For the most part, the Baudelaire children 14-year-old inventor Violet (Emily Browning), her voracious reader/memorizer younger brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) and their toddler sister Sunny (twins Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman), who likes to bite furniture and objects take things in stride. They are of course extremely saddened when their parents die in a mysterious fire that also destroys the Baudelaire mansion, but they accept without fuss being put into the care of a stranger. Even when this "close" relative (closeness here relates to geography rather than bloodlines) turns out to be the exceedingly strange and selfish Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), the children are civil and obedient. They do however draw the line when Olaf, a ham actor with an ego the size of Jupiter, tries to kill them for their inheritance. After this, they go to stay with several other eccentric but well-intentioned relatives (Billy Connolly, Meryl Streep), only to have further tragedy strike courtesy of the disguised, persistent Olaf as the children try to piece together clues about their parents' demise.
EVENTS is interesting to watch visually some of the set pieces are gorgeous and in a broad sense, it's diverting. When the children are left to their own inventive devices, EVENTS works on the level of magical adventure. Browning and Aiken are convincingly resourceful and resilient and the device of subtitling Sunny's toddler burbling into English (understood only by her siblings and the audience) is consistently amusing. However, while Carrey's characterizations both as the epically insincere Olaf and his several aliases are briefly funny, the running joke can't survive being extended throughout the film. Moreover, the style of humor inherent in seeing Carrey act as broadly as he can stands apart from the quasi-Victorian surrealism of the rest of the movie he doesn't seem like he exists in the same universe as Jude Law's dry, regretful narrator and the contrast is more jarring than hilarious. Maybe sketch comedy acting and muted dark children's fantasy can be successfully blended, but the mixture is erratic here.