A Series of Unfortunate Events is not like most children’s books. There is no quest to overthrow terrible evil, no magical powers gained or fighting skills learned. Instead, it is simply the tale of the three Baudelaire orphans trying to find safety and happiness in the face of a cruel universe. In a strange way, it has more in common with the recent wave of YA fiction that inhabits a dystopian world. But where those books and films (The Hunger Games, Divergent) deal in gleaming fascist nightmares, Unfortunate’s dystopia is of a more absurd and mundane flavor. No wonder its 2004 adaptation fared so poorly.
If Unfortunate’s themes proved a little too dark and strange for audiences, it can only be said in the film’s defense that they were executed brilliantly. Director Brad Silberling understands the weary fog of grief that hangs over the entire series from the recently orphaned siblings Violet, Klaus and Sunny, and matches his tone perfectly, striking a balance between Burton’s suburban gothic and Anderson’s absurd melancholy.
The sets are often obviously studio-bound, full of painted backdrops and ill-fitting streets, but these irregularities only add to the film’s realization of an uncanny, off-kilter world. More importantly they look incredible on camera, rich in color and detail, but always cloaked in shadows, a reminder of the tragedy that follows the Baudelaire children. It’s no wonder Unfortunate looks so impressive when you remember it was shot by none other than triple Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki.
Probably the most intriguing thing about the books and film is their bold clash of tone, which essentially turns the children’s tragedy into the butt of a cosmic joke. The Baudelaires are sent to a succession of foster parents, all of which offer the briefest glimpses of happiness before being sabotaged by the nefarious Count Olaf, a distant relation desperate for their fortune. Silberling doubles down on this thread with a casting masterstroke, and his name is Jim Carrey.
Carrey normally carries the air of the compulsive entertainer about him too much to ever convincingly play a villain, but here he blends his buffoonish nature with a mile-wide mean streak to perfectly capture Count Olaf’s personality. In the books he is at once an omnipotent villain, bound by fate and format to reappear and haunt the Baudelaires at every turn, and a hapless fool, trying and failing to best two children and a baby like a Scooby Doo reject.
At its lightest moments, Unfortunate is essentially a vehicle for Carrey to riff to his heart’s content, throwing out darkly hilarious lines like: “I will raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted”. In the opening act where Olaf is the children’s first guardian, he struts like a T-Rex, preens like a prima donna and steals not just the show, but nearly the children’s fortune. The role is a gift for a man of his talents and he makes the most of the opportunity, bombarding the dumbstruck orphans with one-liners and insults. Olaf is the bizarre, inexplicable whirlwind that upturned their lives, defying logic and reason at every turn. It’s a role Carrey was born to play.
He’s not the only A-list legend given the chance to play in this gritty sandbox: Scottish comic Billy Connolly and the inimitable Meryl Streep are cast as the Baudelaires’ second and third guardians, and both relish in their characters’ quirks. As Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, a reptile expert, Connolly is at his most charming, offering the children a real glimpse of hope in his exotic, snake-filled home. Streep is even better as the neurotic Aunt Josephine, a woman who is terrified of the dullest household item yet, in a masterstroke of characterization, lives in a house suspended over the edge of a cliff.
With all that talent in front and behind the camera, how did Unfortunate fail to secure a sequel? The film has flaws - the children are outshone by the adult cast and the episodic nature of the books hampers the plot - but these are minor problems in a great film. The real reason is simply that it didn’t make enough money. Or, more accurately, that it cost far too much to make. On a budget of $140 million, Unfortunate only grossed $118 million domestic. You read that right: a $140 million budget. To give some context, that’s the same amount it cost to make Iron Man four years later. For an old-fashioned kids film, low on special effects and explosive set-pieces, that’s unforgivable.
Memories of the 2004 film might be fading now that the Netflix series is on its way, but Unfortunate deserves to be revisited and cherished for offering something unusual and exceptional in an increasingly crowded market of blockbuster family films.