There are three M. Night Shyamalans at work in Lady in the Water and only one of them succeeds in easing our agony at having to endure what feels like two hours of water torture.
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In the beginning, there was Shyamalan the Writer and he typed the Word. The Word was without form and void but the spirit of Shyamalan moved over the keyboard and he said, Let there be Story, and there was Story and Shyamalan thought it was good, so he kept pecking away at the keyboard, ignoring the voices of Reason and Simplicity and Character Development, listening instead to Hubris and a Compulsion to be Cuddly and Important (see also: Spielberg, Steven, circa 1982). And when he had finished typing, he sat back, cracked his knuckles and said, Lo, it is good. And he delivered the script unto Disney executives, whereupon they said, This stinks, and the miffed and wounded Shyamalan the Writer took his self-described bedtime story for adults to Warner Brothers who, not knowing their ass from their elbow, green-lighted the project.
The plot of Lady in the Water is fairly straight-forward: a lonely, emotionally-wounded handyman (the excellent Paul Giamatti who stands head and shoulders above this silly movie) finds a mysterious girl in his apartment complexs swimming pool one night and, after learning she is from another world (an alternate, Twilight Zone-ish underwater colony), enlists the help of his tenants in getting her back home. The mythological context, however, is such a muddy, jumbled mess that I dont even know where to begin with a description that I could deliver with a straight face. Lets just leave it at this: it involves monkeys, an eagle, crossword puzzles, cereal boxes and a palmful of healing mud from a pools drain. It might be easy to accept some of these belief-suspending elements if it werent for the clumsy, heavy-handed way in which theyre given to us. Instead of letting his fantasy world unfold naturally through action and image, Shyamalan the Writer stops the movie dead in the water (I mean that in all senses of the word) every ten minutes as characters talk
and talk. We know were in trouble when the first three minutes of the movie are given over to a narrator telling us the myth of the narfs who had once communed with Man beneath the sea and who are now sent back into our dry-land world to show us the way back to Peace, Truth and Swimming. This is accompanied by animated caveman drawings. And yet, Im still at a loss to fully explain the watery universe of the movie. What I really need is someone to put it all together visually.
Which is where Shyamalan the Director steps on board this train-wreck-gathering-speed. While he assembles a generally first-rate cast, headed by Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard (who single-handedly redeemed what little value there was in Shyamalans previous train wreck, The Village), Shyamalan the Director is hobbled by Shyamalan the Writer who has created a jaw-dropping mess of plot holes, unwieldy exposition and trite dialogue that would make even the corniest Hallmark Hall of Fame special sound like Shakespeare. Shyamalan the Director delivers what weve come to expect after The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village: ominous atmosphere and long takes which give the actors permission to stare off into space at
something which is either illuminating or creepy, or both.
This time around, Shyamalan the Director opens up the toy box and plays with more special effects than he has in the past. The results are laughably disastrouslaughable because his monsters are red-eyed wolflike beasts made out grass and sticks and you find yourself wondering why handyman Cleveland Heep (Giamatti) doesnt just take a weed whacker to them; and disastrous because Shyamalan chooses to show rather than suggest. Remember how he teased us with blink-glimpses of the aliens in Signs, and even at the climax didnt fully reveal what the creatures looked like? None of that subtlety survives in Lady in the Waterthe growling, prowling beasts called scrunts (go ahead, laugh) are on full display from the beginning and our imaginationalways the best thing to bring to a fantasy-thriller like thisis rudely asked to leave the room.
With Lady in the Water, Shyamalans heart is in the right place
unfortunately, thats on his sleeve and he shoves his shoulder at us every chance he gets. If that doesnt work, he pulls out the Message Hammer and gives us a few solid whacks on the head every ten minutes. Because he has fashioned the movie like a fairy talea princess (water nymph, in this case) in distress who must be saved by a reluctant knightShyamalan feels he must do the cinematic equivalent of reading aloud in a slow, emphasize-every-word voice as if he were the father and we were the children. He so desperately wants to be the next Spielberg (having given up on being the next Hitchcock) and its painful to see him abasing himself in this way. There is probably a decent plotand maybe a sprinkle of genuine magicsomewhere within Lady in the Water, but Shyamalans vein-popping effort to make a spiritually-rich, cuddly movie distracts us from feeling any emotion other than the agony of boredom.
It pains me to write these words because I am one of Shyamalans biggest fans. In an earlier review, I once gushed, here is a director who pays attention to nuance, who has spent most of his life studying the language of film and can now speak it fluently. If there is a sign of hope in Hollywoods current crop of young directors, Shyamalan is it. Im not yet ready to eat those words, but with The Village and now Lady in the Water, Im starting to feel the prick of disappointment. Is M. Night falling victim to the swollen-head syndrome of Hollywood where hubris and self-importance take over every frame of the film? Has he forgotten his roots as someone whose stories, I once believed, were constructed with care, starting with a whisper-light touch then building and building until that final brain-opening twist? What Lady in the Water needs is self-confidence (not self-importance) in the writer-directors ability to show us a story, not thrust it in our faces with sticky fingers.
Which brings me to the third Shyamalan in Lady in the Water. As in nearly all of his other movies, we get a helping of Shyamalan the Actorthis time, he gives himself a larger role than he has in the past (apart from his first movie, Praying With Anger). Shyamalan plays one of the apartment buildings tenants, a writer suffering from writers block until the water nymph foretells his future and frees him from self-doubt so that he can go on to write what she says will be a earth-shaking work of literature. Its pretty easy to guess that Shyamalan the Writer and Director were hoping theyd be creating a spiritually-important work of cinema on this same magnitude. Still, when Shyamalan the Actor is on-screen, hes low-key, natural and occasionally witty. Why couldnt the other two Shyamalans do likewise?
Other reviews of Shyamalan films:
The Sixth Sense: http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-22BC-30712D7-3932B130-prod5
Wide Awake: http://www.epinions.com/content_35587591812
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