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The cheery elf in a Technicolor forest, boys and girls, is total bullshit—and the sooner you learn it, the better. In fact, you might as well learn it immediately: As Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events opens, a toothy gnome’s happy dance is interrupted by a grim narrator who advises, “I’m sorry to say this is not the movie you will be watching.” There’s no happy ending, he warns—and worse, there’s not even a happy beginning. The idea, in case you missed it, is that for the luckless protagonists who are about to be introduced, life sucks, you nearly die, and then life sucks some more.
The narrator, naturally, is the titular Mr. Snicket, here voiced by Jude Law, otherwise embodied by 34-year-old San Francisco author and accordionist Daniel Handler. On the darker and more philosophical side of series-driven kid lit—though not nearly as dark and philosophical as, say, that Philip Pullman trilogy—his 11 Unfortunate Events books chronicle the misadventures of the three Baudelaire orphans, who have lost both their parents and their palatial home to a mysterious fire. In the film, as in the books, these children of woe—14-year-old Violet (Emily Browning), 12-year-old Klaus (Liam Aiken), and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are put under the guardianship of the horrible Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a stage actor and unknown relative who is only after the Baudelaire family fortune and sets out to rid himself of the children ASAP so he can live with his rats in peace.
Written by Men in Black II scripter Robert Gordon and directed by Moonlight Mile’s Brad Silberling, Unfortunate Events combines the first three Snicket books, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window. Of course, there’s more to these stories than gloom, despite what the movie’s hurricane-gray look (courtesy Sleepy Hollow cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) would have you believe. There’s a good bit of sly comedy, too, and plenty of mock-Gothic adventure. Each of the children has a special talent that helps the trio repeatedly escape Olaf: Violet is a miniature MacGyver, Klaus is a compulsive reader with a photographic memory, and Sunny bites—hard. Remarkable as they are, their ingenuity and courage are never quite enough to counter their terrible luck—which, as the title indicates, doesn’t improve much, even after they’re sent to live with their gentle Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and later with their paranoid Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep).
Law’s lilting narration maintains the books’ pseudo-high-minded style and dry humor—he suggests, for instance, that one of Sunny’s squeals probably means “Look at that mysterious figure emerging from the fog!”—and Rick Heinrichs’ production design is suitably artificial. Filmed entirely on Hollywood soundstages, Unfortunate Events is long on models, forced perspective, matte paintings, and other self-consciously cinematic devices, most of them coming across as more fun than fantastical. Little Sunny, who is perfectly understood by Violet and Klaus, even gets running subtitles for her gurgling and babbling—a cheap, nauseating effect that is perhaps the most Hollywoodizing of them all.
For once, at least, the problem’s not Carrey, who is just the right shade of antic as the arrogant Olaf, whether menacing the children, mugging in front of his bored troupe, or approaching each interaction as a line reading to be perfected. Silberling seems to know that Carrey is best in small doses: He wisely limits his headliner’s mania as well as his screen time, keeping the focus on the kids. True, Browning and Aiken aren’t asked to do much more than meet the Baudelaires’ circumstances with stone faces and cool logic, but both bring sufficient gravitas to their smarter-than-thou characters. Streep, meanwhile, displays a surprisingly light touch as phobic wordsmith Josephine, who uses bad grammar as a sort of emergency code and may have a slight quake in her voice but isn’t afraid to address the children as grown-ups. “Be careful of the chandelier,” she tells them. “If it falls, it’ll impale you.”
That line is a good example of Handler’s talent for ill-wind breeziness—an elusive tone that the big-screen Unfortunate Events captures surprisingly well. Though the film loses its way a bit toward the end, rushing to make an unsatisfactorily explained connection between the kids’ parents and their subsequent caretakers, it never allows its morals—don’t shortchange your gifts; home can be anywhere; and life is tough, but you can be tougher—to seem like moralizing. And even if these lessons escape them, the kids will definitely get that part about wayward lighting fixtures—which, after all, is way more important to know than anything having to do with elves.
Spanglish arrives at feel-good-ness by basically the opposite approach: Framed as a college-application essay about role models, this James L. Brooks– helmed dramedy promotes itself as a life-affirming story about strength of character and conviction but manages to sneak in plenty of thoroughly acrimonious content.
Adam Sandler may receive top billing here, but Spanglish’s central character is played by Spanish actress Paz Vega, best known as the star of 2001’s Sex and Lucía. Vega is Flor, a single mother who moves from Mexico to Los Angeles with her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). Flor happily settles into a Spanish-speaking enclave and spends a few years working two jobs, but when Cristina nears puberty, Mom decides to find one higher-paying position so she can better keep an eye on her. Flor is hired as a housekeeper by the Claskys, a well-to-do white family comprising a clichéd wacky-alcoholic grandma, two completely unrealistic children, a pushover four-star chef of a father, and an unbearably shrill matriarch whose head is firmly up her ass.
Writer-director Brooks, whose last cinematic effort was 1997’s Best Picture–nominated As Good as It Gets, tries to re-create the bittersweet tone of that movie with prickly characters and a relay race of situations that pose Big Questions About Life and Family. Flor walks naively into the Claskys’ polished dysfunction, the wellspring of which is the neurotic, self-centered, and just plain nasty Deborah (Téa Leoni). As Deborah crushes the self-esteem of her chubby daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele); blames her mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), for making her such a nutcase; and communicates with her husband, John (Sandler), only to argue with him, Flor soothes everyone with her warm Penélope Cruz eyes and proves that a common language isn’t a prerequisite to understanding.
Despite a few moments of genuine gut-wrenching, Spanglish is essentially unbelievable. Its too-schematic narrative is one problem, with Flor’s desire to keep close tabs on the increasingly Anglicized Cristina at first contrasting with and then echoing Deborah’s atrocious mothering. (Deborah even “steals” Cristina for an afternoon of shopping and hair-streaking, neglecting her own daughter in the process.) But more glaringly, Spanglish is so narratively spotty that it feels as if it has been shorn of an hour or so of storytelling. Evelyn gives up drinking without discussion or apparent reason. The Claskys also have a son, Georgie (Ian Hyland), who is introduced and then, except for a handful of argument cameos, promptly disappears. As for Flor’s overnight mastery of idiomatic English, perhaps she was just playing dumb all along.
On the plus side, Deborah is brought to hateful life by Leoni’s egoless performance, and Sandler is so low-key and tender as John that he’s hands down the film’s most likable character. Close seconds are Cristina, whom Bruce makes sharp and mature but not above a good tantrum, and, improbably, Evelyn, whose sudden last-act wisdom has her hiss to Deborah, “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.” But, after apparently pouring his efforts into making Deborah an indelible female lead, Brooks soon forgets all about the rest of the Claskys. By the end, the movie has jumped years ahead to show how what once seemed an unduly harsh move of Flor’s has actually turned out great, for her as well as her daughter. Brooks probably thinks of it as a clever inversion of the assimilation comedy. Ultimately, though, Spanglish’s most ingenious idea is that white people are bad.CP