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Carrey on killing

It is Hollywood wisdom that an actor is a man or woman who convinces an audience they are someone else. A star (much more important than an actor) is a man or woman who is able to play an exaggerated version of him/herself in a series of films intended to showcase their particular talents. There are very few 'star' actors, personalities whose presence can ensure a good opening weekend and who can also expect to be well rewarded come Oscar night. Tom Hanks is probably the best example of the 'star' actor, a man whose presence can green light a project but also someone who can bring significant thespian talent to bear and not just depend on an increasingly overwrought physicality.

Then there are the 'stars' who long to be taken seriously as actors. Most stars go through this career phase. Bill Murray had his Razor's Edge, Stallone his Copland and Tom Cruise his Magnolia. Some prove themselves worthy of continued accolade and some crash and burn thereby relying on and returning to the 'star' system to keep them in the box office heavens. But Jim Carrey not only appears to fall between the two stools, he gleefully straddles them. Ace Ventura and The Mask catapulted this manic Canadian into the box office stratosphere. His wide faced, hyperactive, rubber bodied persona was established (the star) and despite sequel attractions (his agents must have been so frustrated that their guaranteed meal ticket wanted to be an actor - hi diddle-dee dee), Jim Carrey wanted to expand his repertoire. The Cable Guy, The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proved he could be versatile and believable. But was there a role out there that could fold in Carrey’s acting ambitions while retaining his strengths as a larger than life character. Oh yes.

And his name was Count Olaf. It certainly wasn't the Riddler in the almost un-watchable Batman and Robin

Here is a über-decadent fop, a failed actor related in blood to a family who suffer the titular series of unfortunate events. Here is a potential child murderer but with flair and panache (if one is able to claim such adjectives for something as grievous as killing children). All the way through this charming fantasy, ably directed by Brad Silberling, I longed to see what Tim Burton may have made with the same material, or even Gilliam whose movies Unfortunate Events reminded me of, but Gilliam-lite. But most of all, Burton would have brought Christopher Walken to bear, a big gun for the role, tailor made. You'd believe Walken would kill children - no stranger to such a deed albeit without his head in Sleepy Hollow.

Olaf, in the three Daniel Handler books upon which the film is based, really needs to be more like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, someone to give children nightmares (which are apparently good for them before someone objects to my cavalier attitude towards children’s mental health). But as a safe Olaf, a non-threatening Olaf (despite his schemes to bump off the three Baudelaire children to get his mitts on their money), Carrey does an entertaining job and in and of itself, that’s fine for such a light pastry of a movie.

Unfortunate Events takes place in an imaginary world and does very well to introduce us to it non fussily and competently. You never know which era the film is supposed to be set and it's almost as if the three children have stepped in from our 'real world' and experience the oddness of Olaf's world just as we do. Jude Law as narrator and writer Lemony Snicket is seen only in silhouette (what, was he cheaper in just silhouette?). The movie starts in a delightfully twee manner. The 70s, eastern European style, 3D animation showcases The Happy Elf - a movie within a movie that is soon subverted by Snicket's foreboding voice over. We are not here to see happy elves cavorting about. Snicket is saddened to inform us that we will be watching something a lot darker with precious little happiness. We are introduced to the three Baudelaire children (each cast to perfection and that includes the triplets that were originally cast to play the youngest child and the twins who eventually got the role). They have lost their parents and home in a raging fire of mysterious origin. The orphans are placed in the custody of Count Olaf (Carrey in a number of disguises) who attempts to kill all three on numerous occasions while the children wise up and learn the truth about their parents.

The older Baudelaire girl, Violet, has a talent for invention; Klaus, her brother, a photographic memory stretched by all the books he's read; Sunny, the baby (we are told) likes to bite things. Aside from the Puss in Boots big eye shot in Shrek 2, the shot of Sunny biting a table and hanging suspended in mid air is a favourite of mine from 2004. She also manages to have her thoughts subtitled which is OK until the film makers get cute and turn her into a comedian. Their first real trial is to escape from a locked car parked on a railway line by Olaf as his first attempt to entice a train to help him inherit the family money. The ingenuity on display by the children is pointedly unbelievable but hugely entertaining. The film then settles into its template of Olaf wants to kill, the children thwart him. Along the way we are treated to a cadre of characters, each played by the most surprising faces.

Uncle Monty (to outsiders all, a name that only applies to - and must only apply to Withnail and I) is played by Billy Connolly, a herpetologist (someone whose passion is reptiles and amphibians). Could not the original author have resisted the name 'Monty'? After all, he deals with pythons… It's under his care that the children gain confidence but they are all soon disabused of any happy future with a man that knew the Baudelaire family well. Olaf sees to that making sure that Monty dies in a convincingly 'poisoned' fashion. But wait, this is a different world and only we know that the most horrific and deadly snake in the world has an undeserved reputation. In another shot, digitally animated to within an inch of its life (but still entertaining nonetheless) it's the baby Sunny that provides the snake's innocence.

Shipped off to Aunt Josephine next, the children encounter Meryl Streep in playful and neurotic mode. The scenes in her house are among the most striking for the production design alone. It's at this point that Carrey crops up again (wooden leg in CG evidence) as a salty sea captain bent on marrying Streep and therefore gaining control of the Baudelaire fortune. The destruction of the house is as good and narratively satisfying as anything out there for children right now.

George Lucas’ effects house, ILM, does a remarkable job at unifying the world in which Unfortunate Events is set - a sort of un-real cyclorama pastel CG world of not quite real things - but they are consistent and that’s what gives the film its edge. It has a through line and a design that transports you. Yes, Burton or Gilliam may have made an edgier effort but for a mainstream Hollywood children’s film it steers clear of references and therefore is a real film that stands on its own two feet.

Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events

USA 2004
108 mins
Brad Silberling
Laurie MacDonald
Walter F. Parkes
Robert Gordon
from the books by
Daniel Handler
Emmanuel Lubezki
Dylan Tichenor
Thomas Newman
production design.
Rick Heinrichs
Jim Carrey
Meryl Streep
Jude Law
Emily Browning
Liam Aiken
Kara Hoffman
Shelby Hoffman
Timothy Spall
Billy Connolly
review posted
18 January 2005