Well I must say. Either M. Night Shyamalan has built one hell of an ego, or people sure like to throw around his name a lot, making a history lesson out of not one, but the last two trailers for his films. Quick, can you tell me the last five films that Steven Speilberg directed? I know I can't. But ask me (or anyone) what are the names of Shyamalan's five films, they could probably tell you with one lip tied behind their backs. Hell, Gore Verbinski directed The Ring and both Pirates of the Caribbean films, I don't see his name getting tossed around on every banner.
The Village, MNS's last film before this, drew a mixed reaction, and I certainly wasn't claiming dibs on the more benevolent side of that fence.
And so when trailers for Lady In The Water started to float to the surface, I found myself only mildly interested. They were just cryptic enough to be intriguing, but told practically nothing of the actual story. Which is good. My guess was okay, he's gonna go down in the pool with her, go off to her world and it'll be like Peter Pan or something. But, like any obedient fairweather fan (at this point), I was going to reserve judgment, and grab myself a seat at the earliest showing possible. (Of course if I had to work the next night, that might be a totally different story now.)
Five surprisingly great trailers came and went, and my fall Friday schedule filled up like a paper cup under Niagara Falls.
We weren't even up to the actual title screen for Lady In The Water, and already, I was "into" it. The opening is fairly modest, a simple series of images, like those drawn by cavemen, and a narrator telling us all about the Narfs. Every once in a while, they come to this world to enlighten someone who will end up causing a movement that brings Mankind closer to peace. Or something like that. Then they just go back to their world and if they're lucky, they won't get eaten by the Scrunts. The question is, will Man still listen?
And that's pretty much it. This Narf who goes by the name of "Story" (Bryce Dallas Howard) emerges from the swimming pool at an apartment complex called "The Cove". Paul Giamatti, the maintenance guy and I think we are to presume the owner as well, fits his role like a glove. He is what we all are, just another nobody out there who has no purpose to his life other than his mundane daily routine doing stupid sh!t for people who can't, but usually won't, just do it themselves.
In many ways, that is what the theme of the film is, too. Purpose. That being we all have one.
But in the meantime, there is a whole lot of stuff not typical to a MNS film, often irrelevant, happening. Bob Balaban plays Mr. Farver, who is a new tenant that appears early in the film, and comes to emerge as a scathing film critic. His dialogue is so utterly over-the-top and dare I say parodying that it's a wonder he doesn't blow it! Freddy Rodriguez is an attention-seeking guy who only works out on one side of his body. I don't know if that's CGI there, but if it ain't, I'm impressed. Can't wait for the jokes to come out about what he's like in the sack.
Cindy Cheung plays a young Chinese girl who translates her fairytale-savvy mother's words. Many of the younger guys might find themselves chagrined to finally have the burden of having popped a woody at a Shyamalan film, but damn if she ain't the looker. For a minute, I thought I was watching the 2003 version of Freaky Friday!
But really, the acting was terrific all around. Lead players Giamatti and Bryce Dallas juiced their roles all the way to the core, and were complemented nicely by the mosaic of side actors. Occasionally, there may have been a few too many, such that I felt myself wanting to know more about several of them as individuals.
But that's what I get for being a Lost fan. Speaking of which, this film did in many ways remind me of Lost, mostly because of the sheer volume of characters coming and going on the screen. You got the self-tortured lead guy, there's the man and his son (and I totally called that thing with the son, who wouldn't!?), there's the Chinese (or is that Korean?) people, the quiet husky old lady, the jock, the mute man who turns out to be pretty darn wise himself, and so on and so forth.
But Story (the lady) is one character who, cliche'd though she may be, you still feel for her. That's really what makes the story for me. Bryce's performance of this character is spot on. She is very much human-like as the rest of us, and if there is any weird supernatural or fairytale thing going on with her character, it doesn't interfere with the reality of her character or her interaction with everything else in the film. She talks like one of us, reads like one of us, hugs like one of us. The reason this film feels like a real fairy tale is not because it took us away to some faraway land, but because it brought that world to us, however fleeting of a glance it may be. We're not looking all up at the sky and down off the edge of the grand chariot that swept us away, we're simply focusing on these otherworldly things from our own safe vantage point. The reactions by the characters (and consequently, by us as an audience) feel all the more real for it.
It's a delight to say that the musical team who wrote such a scintillating score for Unbreakable and a somewhat chirpy but still effective music for Signs, have returned to write the music for Lady In The Water. It really is half the movie right there, the music. When Giamatti's character discovers what his purpose is, not only does he just bury it home with his little speech, but the music there. I couldn't possibly taint it with some wordy description. It's way beyond all that.
I'll admit, there are many times when Lady In The Water goes pretty far off the deep end. The movie critic I was talking about, he seems to view his entire life within the film as a film, and is always calling the shots as to what's going to happen next, or what to expect from people based on stereotypical character traits. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's not. But if it gives us a laugh and Shyamalan catharsis, why not? Other off-the-deep-end antics include a guy spending two minutes trying to "interpret" his completed crossword puzzle to find out what to do next, while people around him (who strangely don't question why they're there) tell him he's a God and a prophet. This might be Shyamalan's representation of that fan on the internet who makes a 13-page post arguing that Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable is Bruce Willis' future self. I don't know.
All I know is that from an emotional standpoint, this film really did make me feel that I wasn't alone (one way in which the gargantuan number of characters helped), and that everything would be okay. Even if it makes me some helpless whiny six-year-old for needing all that assurance, I still felt better for hearing it, as I'm certain many of us would, no matter how much our actions and demeanor might suggest otherwise. I'm not sure why Shyamalan wrote this story. I don't know if the ends justifies the means in this case, but I'm happy to just take my ends, go home and tell the world about it.
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Movie Mood: Family Movie
Viewing Method: Studio Screening/Premiere
Film Completeness: Looked complete to me.