By Lisa Schwarzbaum
December 15, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Francois Duhamel

I’m sorry to say that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t nearly as cheerily unpleasant as it ought to be. If you are familiar with the series of beguiling and morose books by the fabulously glum (but never glumly fabulous) author who calls himself Lemony Snicket on which this slack and hedging movie adaptation is built, then you already know how frustrating such a turn of events is. And if you aren’t already a fervent admirer of the orphaned but resourceful Baudelaire siblings Violet, Klaus, and their infant sister, Sunny, or if you don’t enjoy being pleasantly concerned about the woeful predicaments in which the children repeatedly find themselves at the hands of Count Olaf, the dastardly would-be guardian angling for their fortune, then you cannot possibly imagine the opportunity that has been lost in translation.

The movie combines bits of the first three Snicket books (from a library currently totaling 11 tragedy-laden volumes) into a representative selection of ill-starred occurrences, with movie-only plot elements added in, presumably to make the story nicer for quaking adults squeamish about awfulness in the world. And it is my sad duty to report that director Brad Silberling (Moonlight Mile) and screenwriter Robert Gordon have managed quite remarkably to leech most of the essential, reader-respectful seriousness of Snicket’s lugubrious literary style out of the thing. In signing many cool actors to participate with outsize energy (among them Billy Connolly, Catherine O’Hara, and Cedric the Entertainer), the filmmakers have overlit the matter-of-fact darkness that is the author’s greatest contribution to entertainment for smart and perceptive young people.

If, on the other hand, you have an affection for the Silly Putty character stylings of Jim Carrey, then you are in luck, because the man of a thousand rubbery faces turns the rococo Count Olaf into a florid goofball more joke than menace. From the moment their oblivious estate executor (Timothy Spall) deposits the Baudelaire orphans with Olaf in his ornately creepy house, through all the crises that accumulate in the course of the children’s efforts to survive unprotected in a parentless world (including Violet’s possibly binding forced marriage to the much older gold-digging Count), Carrey sells Olaf’s shticky side at the expense of inhabiting the character’s more deeply chilling contours. Olaf is a threat to the children, one who just won’t go away; Carrey’s biggest threat is that he’ll never stop clowning around.

And since the children themselves are so well-behaved and somber — Emily Browning as Violet, Liam Aiken as Klaus, and twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman as little Sunny, who likes to bite things — Carrey’s Olaf is quite, quite energy-consuming. Only great dame Meryl Streep, having a galloping good time as the Baudelaires’ phobic Aunt Josephine, knows how to tame this he-shrew.

Curiously, although the plot additions are simplistic and the ending too happy and regrettably uplifting, there is one delicious Lemony element uniquely to be enjoyed in the movie production: The enthusiastically pessimistic narration by hard-working Jude Law as Snicket himself is all an enthusiast could wish for. Suitably precise, businesslike, and charming enough without drowning you in charisma, his voice-over is a most fortunate event indeed.