The film adaptation of several of Lemony Snicket's wildly popular children's books begins with a fake-out opening featuring the psychotically cheerful adventures of a happy little elf, a neat little commentary on the Rankin-Bass school of upbeat kids' programming. Then the film's narrator/author (voiced by Jude Law) breaks the fourth wall to inform audiences that instead of elf adventures, they'll be watching something much darker. Music from the mock opening reappears throughout the film, and its sunny obliviousness makes an ironic counterpoint to the ghoulish, dark humor of the film's real plot.
As the title suggests, Unfortunate Events belongs to the grim but vital strain of children's literature in which children suffer terribly, parents and kindly adults have the same life expectancy as villains in action movies, and courage and ingenuity are all that keep kids alive. Shoehorning three books into one movie, Events casts Jim Carrey as a sadistic actor who becomes the guardian of three enterprising children after their parents die. With visions of dollar signs dancing in his head, Carrey sets about attempting to murder the children and claiming their fortune-to-be; as often as they escape his clutches, he imperils them again and again. Like The Mask, Events transforms all of Carrey's tendencies toward showboating and desperate mugging into strengths, in this case by casting him as a terrible actor helplessly in love with his wretched self. Looking like a cross between the star of Nosferatu and a down-and-out 19th-century dandy, Carrey blends right in with the film's gothic production design, with its echoes of German Expressionism, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gahan Wilson, and Charles Addams.
Like Chris Columbus with the first two Harry Potter movies, director Brad Silberling (Casper) seems to have been chosen more for his safe commercial instincts than his talent or vision. It's tempting to think that had the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam, or Burton directed the film, it could have been inspired, rather than just an adaptation that closely protects the franchise. A potentially touching, emotional scene early on, for example, is ruined by bombastic scoring. And while the youngest child, an inveterate biter, at first suggests a feral parody of the Full House-era Olsen twins, she seems less like a spoof and more like an homage with every cutesy wisecrack. Still, for all Silberling's faults, the film stays true to the black soul of its source material. At its best, A Series Of Unfortunate Events is the stuff nightmares are made of, a sick joke of a film that realizes the best children's entertainment doesn't hide from the bleaker side of life, but plunges into the void and respects kids enough to assume they can handle it.