It must get tiresome being unlucky all the time. You get into a scrape, you use your ingenuity to get out of it, and then plop, you’re back in the jam again. Daniel Handler’s pseudonymously written books “A Series of Unfortunate Events” have a bit of sameness about them, as each time the hapless Baudelaire orphans are set upon by the evil Count Olaf and escape by being clever. The movie, which encapsulates the first three books in the series, begins roaringly but soon loses steam, caught in the quagmire of repetitiveness.
It owes much of its initial energy to Jim Carrey, who performs the role of Count Olaf (and his various aliases) with typical Carreyan mania. Count Olaf — granted custody to his distant relatives the Baudelaires when their parents perish in a fire — is delirious and silly, full of idiosyncrasies and random oddness, like pronouncing “surprise” the French way, “sur-preez.” He makes jokes about the youngest child, baby Sunny, being a monkey, except he also seems to actually believe she is a monkey.
Count Olaf is evil, of course, and he wants the children dead so he can stop having to care for them and start spending their money. But the older children, Violet (Emily Browning) the inventor and Klaus (Liam Aiken) the bookworm, are a crafty duo. Sullen and stubborn, they seem to accept that they are going to be miserable for a while, even as they are constantly looking for ways not to be. I admire their fortitude. Harry Potter is always about to be killed, too, but at least he has magical powers and some friends. The Baudelaires got nothin’.
The Count’s nefarious plans are first thwarted by a somewhat competent lawyer (Timothy Spall), who thinks Olaf has let baby Sunny drive the car, thus making Olaf an unfit guardian. What he had actually done was lock the children in the vehicle while it was in the path of an oncoming train, but either way, Olaf is no longer a foster parent. The kids go to the home of reptile expert Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and are happy there, but the Count soon infiltrates and destroys that situation, and the children are bounced to Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a woman so terrified of possible accidents that she doesn’t even use doorknobs for fear a fire on the other side will have made them hot to the touch. (Note: I received an e-mail from an attentive reader who points out that I have this wrong. Aunt Josephine is actually afraid that the doorknobs might explode into a thousand pieces and one might hit her in the eye. I think I inferred that she was afraid a fire on the other side of the door would have caused the explosion, but that is not what the movie says. My apologies.)
Once the initial manic charm of Jim Carrey has worn off — and that may be sooner for some viewers than others, depending upon your general attitude toward Carrey’s style — the film settles into a rut from which it never entirely escapes. The story is dark and morbidly funny, but apart from Carrey, it is not funny enough, occasional subtitled babblings from baby Sunny notwithstanding. Director Brad Silberling’s previous films — “Casper,” “City of Angels” and “Moonlight Mile” — have all dealt with death as major themes; you may know that Silberling was dating actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was killed by an obsessed fan in 1989, so it’s understandable how his work would become flavored by thoughts of mortality. But with “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” you get the feeling he’s thinking too much about the underlying themes, and it prevents him from having any fun.
Where the film excels is in its production design. Not a bit of it was shot “on location” anywhere; everything was manufactured on studio lots and sound stages, so it has a whimsical, artificial look, like peering into someone’s imagination while he’s dreaming. If the movie were as wildly creative as it looks, it would be brilliant, instead of merely OK.
B- (1 hr., 37 min.; )