"The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant." So warns our narrator, writer Lemony Snicket (voiced by Jude Law), chronicler of the Beaudelaire family history, at the start of Brad Silberling's Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Indeed, no sooner do we meet the Beaudelaire children -- 14-year-old Violet, with her gift for invention; pre-teen Klaus, who has read simply everything; and baby Sunny, who likes to bite things -- then we learn their terrible fate: Their parents have just perished in a house fire. They are orphaned, homeless, and left to the care of their distant uncle, the not-quite-esteemed actor Count Olaf, who has a determined eye on their eventual inheritance.
The film conflates three of the popular Lemony Snicket novels, those delightfully gothic children's stories -- A Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window -- and thus the Beaudelaire orphans travel rapidly from one terrible situation to another. Kindly guardians perish; pleas for help go unheard; and dreadful horrors await at dubiously named locales like Lake Lachrymose. The film has an appropriately moody, gloomy look with lots of clever set design: The sun never shines; everything from automobiles to clothing is shabby and old-fashioned; even the "nice" places on the orphans' journey have claustrophobic clutter and hidden peril.
A passel of respectable actors including Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly and Timothy Spall enjoyably chew the scenery, but Jim Carrey steals the film as the evil Count Olaf. There's nothing a hammy actor like Carrey loves more than playing another hammy actor (who himself plays multiple hammy roles); here he's marvelously campy without tipping over into mania. With his hooked nose (displayed frequently as the actor strikes profiles), shock of gray frazzled hair and his Victoriana-cum-goth get-ups, Count Olaf is an old-school dastardly villain to cheer for. And Carrey is the perfect conduit for Snicket's pointed, droll dialogue: "Please intrude," Olaf deadpans at his front door, not quite welcoming his new wards.
Thanks to Snicket's voice-over and the ebullient Olaf, the film retains much of the novels' clever wordplay, complicated syntax, $10 words and arch tone. "'Dinner,'" Olaf explains pompously to the children, "is the French word for "'evening meal'." (The novels' real author, Daniel Handler, shares a screenwriting credit.) Part of the series' charm is how the books celebrate knowledge and cleverness without being patronizing or didactic, and thus the film's plot can turn easily on the knowledge of grammar or by tweaking proverbial childhood dictums, such as waiting an hour before one goes swimming.
Ironically, the film's greatest weakness is the portrayal of the children. Their roles here are often relegated to straight man as the older thespians take no prisoners in exaggerated dramatics, and the skill of the child actors -- Emily Mortimer and Liam Aiken -- is of TV-movie caliber. The scenes with only the kids feel the most rote and come closest to shifting the work's tone to phony inspirational: "Will anything feel like home again?" they lament. Who cares? More Count Olaf! More leeches! More unfortunate events!