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Child's play 

Irony, kitsch and adolescence in two new films

I have to admit that when I first encountered the name of Lemony Snicket, it struck me as unbearably cute, something that belongs on the plushie-Care Bears end of the children's toy spectrum. When I discovered that this Lemony Snicket is actually a guy my age named Daniel Handler, and not a corporate entity like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, the nom de plume seemed even sillier. At any rate, an author named Lemony Snicket certainly couldn't entice me into reading his books of my own volition. Snicket, of course, is the author and narrator of a series of mock-Victorian children's books collectively called A Series of Unfortunate Events; the first, A Bad Beginning, had the distinction of knocking the Harry Potter juggernaut off its perch atop the best seller lists. The Lemony Snicket books, with their cutesy alliterative titles like The Vile Village and The Ersatz Elevator, are designed as objets d'art, with Gilded Age fonts and rough-cut pages (as if we'd used a knife to turn the pages, as in the olden days). The narrator's voice is genially pompous in a 19th-century way, speaking directly to the reader like Dickens, Thackeray or, perhaps more appositely, like Kipling or Lear. The manic Victoriana continues when we meet our protagonists, Violet, Klaus and Sunny von Bul--oops, Baudelaire, three children who become orphans in the first chapter of the first book.

The fact that these books first appeared in 1999 and are scheduled to continue through 13 installments (11 have been published thus far, plus an "unauthorized autobiography") makes one think that they're an arch and elaborate hoax by McSweeney's magazine, something that Neil Pollack, Dave Eggers and Sarah Vowell could have cooked up over a long weekend in the country and subsequently farmed out to ghostwriters. In a way, this suspicion isn't far off the mark: Handler counts among his friends one Stephin Merritt, composer and bandleader of The Magnetic Fields and himself no slouch in the craft of sly and skillful appropriation of old genre forms. (In fact, Handler played accordion for several numbers on Merritt's greatest musical achievement, The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, and Merritt has even written a song about Count Olaf, the villain of the Snicket books.)

Thanks to the occasion of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, a movie starring Jim Carrey as the dastardly count, I've now read the first book and I must say that I'm looking forward to reading the rest of them with my as-yet-unborn children. Like the best writers for grade schoolers, Handler skillfully adopts the voice of a sympathetic adult, one that kids can trust and who manages to be pedagogical without condescension. On virtually every page, for example, he introduces a "vocab" word but wittily defines it in a confidential way that intensifies whatever is happening at the moment. But much more importantly, he's in touch with the sensibility of the pre-Benjamin Spock corpus of children's literature, when kids were exposed to truly terrifying stories about parental death or abandonment, wicked cannibals in the woods, poisoned candy and all kinds of death and dismemberment that spoke directly to the primal terrors of childhood. Handler has said in interviews that contemporary literature does children a disservice by sugarcoating the realities of the adult world, and his books set about to create resourceful, idealized juvenile heroes who face, and survive, genuine horrors with little more than their wits, imagination and book smarts (and, pointedly, without the aid of magic).

Unfortunately, the movie that opened last Friday bears scant resemblance to the menacing allure of the books and looks instead like a Harry Potter movie done on the cheap. Clearly, the marching orders for director Brad Silberling and screenwriter Robert Gordon were to make it NOT scary, to smooth over the evil edges of the literary version. Despite the intermittent and fortuitous narration by Jude Law that preserves the books' tone, the overall result is a tame, inoffensive film with endless tie-in marketing opportunities; soon, Lemony Snicket products will be as irritatingly unavoidable as Shrek plasticware and Harry Potter sportswear at our local Wal-Mart.

Most of the blame for this will fall on Jim Carrey, who's encouraged to mug, mug and mug some more, making his Olaf as manic and toothless as his Grinch or his Riddler. If Carrey had been allowed to do a true rendering of Count Olaf, he would have done something closer to his titular turn in The Cable Guy, famously a disaster back in 1996 but subsequently somewhat rehabilitated. Of The Cable Guy, Carrey said in later interviews that parents would reproach him angrily, saying that his performance as an obsessive and violent cable installer had terrified their children. Judging from his interpretation of Olaf as a slightly more sinister Wile E. Coyote, he's learned the lesson of his Cable Guy debacle all too well. Instead of the terrifying specter that stalks the Baudelaires in the books, we get a lovable bad guy who's safe for suburban multiplexes and DVD giveaways with the purchase of a large pizza from Papa John's.

Lemony Snicket isn't the only work of anachronism and whimsy gracing our theaters. This weekend, that tinkertoy of 1970s kitsch mania called Wes Anderson will unveil his latest concoction, a film called The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But if the work of Handler/Snicket is a clever and ultimately earnest distillation of adult themes into a quaint children's literary model, Wes Anderson's films, to me, are the work of a bright adolescent who can't let go of his childish things. (It made perfect sense that his last film, The Royal Tenenbaums, was an unabashed ode to the books of J.D. Salinger, the world's oldest teenager.) Anderson, also the writer behind Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, has some enthusiastic fans out there, but I've never been one of them. Although his movies are certainly clever and occasionally even funny, they remind me too much of New Yorker cartoons, or worse, those remarkably unfunny Shouts and Murmurs columns (excepting the ones written by Steve Martin). That is to say, they're "witty" but they're not "funny." (Appropriately enough, Anderson's co-writer on his new project, Noah Baumbach, is an occasional perpetrator of shouts and murmurs in that magazine.)

Actually, even a non-fan such as I had some fun watching Life Aquatic, with its appealing maritime setting and sterling cast of Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Angelika Huston and newcomers Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and, especially, Cate Blanchett (shining here as in The Aviator, which makes her approximately the world's best actress at this very moment). Once again, Anderson has ransacked his memories of childhood toys and TV shows, and here he's conjured up the world of a Costeau-like 1970s television underwater show host. Bill Murray, who by now is an old hand at playing celebrity has-beens, is the title character, a salty-bearded pop celebrity who is fast approaching burnout.

Life Aquatic opens at a gala on the French Riviera, with Zissou wearily answering questions about his most recent underwater film, a disaster that culminated in the death of his friend and trusted crew member. Things aren't going well, though. In addition to ongoing fundraising difficulties, his wife (Huston) is leaving him and he discovers, ambivalently, that he has a grown son, a Kentucky bush pilot played by a straight-faced Owen Wilson.

The boat sets out to sea, in search of the killer shark responsible for the death of Zissou's pal, and soon the crew is beset by bad weather, boredom, mutiny and piracy. In the interim, Blanchett shows up as a visibly pregnant journalist (and perhaps sets a precedent for American movies in having sex with a man who is not the father of her baby). All the while, Zissou flails about, trying to accept the adulthood he's spent an entire life avoiding.

The story is a slack and slight one and the best bits are the details, the non-stop giggles that the production designers must have experienced when they put guns on the thighs of Zissou's crew members, or built his underwater navigator or designed the long tracking shot along a cross-section of Zissou's boat. As for the flotilla of U.S.S. Story, Character, Purpose and Theme, well, it sails into the sunset of irrelevance and forgetability. A major character dies near the end, but as the credits roll a few minutes later, it's impossible to summon up any feelings about it.

  • Irony, kitsch and adolescence in two new films

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