The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, July 27, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Lady in the Water

Full review behind the jump

Lady in the Water

: M. Night Shyamalan
: M. Night Shyamalan
: Sam Mercer, M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodríguez, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt

Lady in the Water
self-identifies as a bedtime story. My father told me bedtime stories, and the joy of them was that anything could happen. Nothing was out of bounds, nothing against the rules, because he was making it up as he went and could always come up with some new purpose behind any inconsistencies. And a toddler doesn’t question what Daddy says. Daddy is never wrong. I’m guessing from this film that M. Night Shyamalan wishes the moviegoing public would accord him the same worship.

I’ve been willing to trumpet his real and specific talents to the world since his splash with
The Sixth Sense – that I think he has an intuitive gift for pacing and atmosphere when he’s behind the camera, and that he knows how to get the most from his creative collaborators. Actors come off well in his movies. They are impeccably photographed and given unique and evocative musical scores. It makes his apparent blind spot about his own slapdash inadequacies as a writer all the more startling – after this and The Village I find myself wondering if he deliberately writes worse and worse stories as a masochistic filmmaking challenge: how long can he shoot this garbage compellingly?

Like many of Shyamalan’s stories, it’s about the power of belief, and every time we come around to believing something we see, he punishes us for it. He does this by either by re-defining it and mocking us for not having the information he just made up, or by making the thing we are to believe in gallingly silly.

It’s impossible for me to judge which information, if any, he would rather I keep secret, and I usually at least attempt to respect the filmmaker in this regard. You’d like that to be a two-way street, but after seeing what happens to the humorless fussbudget of a film critic (Bob Balaban) Shyamalan cheekily inserts into the narrative, I guess that I’m going to have to be the grown-up in this relationship.

I can’t avoid setting up
some context, though, so I’m issuing a general spoiler warning – if you truly intend to see this movie and will not be persuaded against it, what novelty the movie might hold could be tainted by what you’ll read below.

As the movie opens we are told that there is a “Blue World” within the waters of the Earth and that it’s inhabited by The Narfs, and that when The Narfs and the land-dwelling humans interacted there was peace and harmony on the Earth. But then sinful ol’ man moved inland and started making with the greed and the warmongering and lost touch. And now, in what is presumably our darkest hour, the Narfs are sending forth envoys in an attempt to fulfill a prophecy about changing the world.

This all is supposed to happen in Cleveland Heep’s pool. Heep (Paul Giamatti, who, it must be said, is excellent in his attempts to put this mess over) is the superintendent of an apartment complex called “The Cove”. He’s a stuttering misfit but also a quiet and caring man when it comes to the needs of his tenants. He has worked himself into a small, sad rut he considers comfortable, at least until the arrival of The Narf (Bryce Dallas Howard).

She calls herself “Story”, has an ethereal paleness and mysterious scratches on her legs. She’s not aloud to talk about where she came from, except when she does, nor can she be specific about her mission, except when she is. Why? The movie could save itself time if, whenever a character asked why, Shyamalan just popped up with “because I said so”. It would be a simple matter, he’s already gone to the trouble of casting himself in a major role in the movie. He plays a writer who’s been gazing out a little window setting his thoughts and musings down in book form, and Story tells him this book will someday Inspire the Great Leaders of the Future.

I’m going to try and leave that one alone, but he is one of the people Story is fated to meet; average, lower-income people with no idea the great destiny they will contribute to, and Heep must help her find them among his tenants. There’s also a threat lurking outside, a “Scrunt” which stalks Narfs who leave the Blue World. The Scrunt is a wolf-like creature who can hide in the ground because his fur is indistinguishable from grass, which coins a new Zen question: If a wolf made of grass poops on the lawn, does it smell?

Eventually most of the community becomes involved in the quest to deliver Story to the Great Eagle, and the movie is tactful enough to skip Heep explaining the whole mythology to one resident after another. But in the process we skip something else: Not once in this movie does anyone question that this troubled naked woman is, in actual fact, a mystical oracle of a better tomorrow described in an old fairy tale that only the crazy woman upstairs (June Kyoto Lu) knows. And that even the most minor detail of her story, which she defiantly shares in bits and pieces, only what will be useful to the plot at the moment, is going to come literally true. Perhaps that’s the magic spell the movie hopes to weave, but if you put twenty people in a room and told them to be very afraid of “The Scrunt”, can you tell me not one would even crack a grin?

It’s worth saying that the movie manages to weave a lovely color scheme into the design of the apartment complex, and Shyamalan can still work a couple of old-fashioned “Tingler” jump in your seat moments, usually involving lawn sprinklers that turn on Very Loudly All of a Sudden. The actors, as is custom, do their sincere best. Once in awhile they even manage to break through the harebrained fantasy and touch us with something that feels genuine – like a man finally releasing the grief of his lost family.

But I can’t help but come back to what’s represented by the character Shyamalan plays and how it informs this movie’s overall thrust. It’s a celebration of stubborn whimsy – the suggestion that whatever Beautiful Thought floats into his cerebrum is somehow imbued with greater purity and magic than what we clumsy mortals do with our “reasoning” and “curiosity” and “going outside and getting a job”. Lady in the Water takes the air of a defiant delusion – Shyamalan will not have us examining or questioning it, and he’ll sic a Scrunt on us if we disobey. It’s not messianic but when you’ve included a martyrdom fantasy you’re certainly in the zip code.

And on the most fundamental level the movie fails, because I just don’t care. Every new layer of prophecy simply hardens my attitude – that I couldn’t give a flying Narf who the Healer actually is, or the Guardian, or why the Tartutics haven’t shown up yet. And if you understand that sentence, it means you saw the movie. Shame on you.


  • There are different ways of seeing a movie. The way you saw Lady in the water completely fails to reach the essence of the movie. I just feel sorr for you.

    By Blogger Catalin, at 4:43 PM  

  • So what you're saying is that even though there are different ways to see a movie, anyone who doesn't see it exactly your way needs your pity? Or perhaps I fail to understand what it means when you feel "sorr" for someone - that one's new to me.

    By Blogger Nick, at 6:16 PM  

  • I gotta say Nick, you're much harder on the film than I would have been - but you're not wrong. It's only the amazing filmmaking that saves the poor script. I think you understood the essence of the film just fine, you just aren't willing to ignore the weak writing.
    Willing suspension of disbelief is much easier when the logic of a story is consistent, and in this one it's simply not. Most fairy tales explain concepts and aspects of real life with stories, teaching about coping with death and loss, or why the sky is blue, or why animals can't use fire, etc. This one has the elements of a fairy tale but not the underlying plot. There's no real underlying logic as to what the significance of any of the fantasy creatures is, or why they behave in a particular way.

    I think perhaps you are harder on this film than on others that have crappy writing with brilliant directing/acting/cinematography in part because you know what Shyamalan can do when he puts more effort into the writing part of it. It's hard to see someone who has done great work do sub-standard work later because you know it could have been so much better if they'd just taken the time and effort...

    Like watching Oscar-winner Hallie Berry play the weakest performance in the X-Men movies as Storm because she won't put the effort into a film she clearly thinks of as less meaningful, or Jack Lemmon not even bothering to learn what he was actually saying for his whole three lines in Branaugh's Hamlet, because he doesn't understand Shakespeare.

    You end up feeling like they don't respect their fans and audience. I think to some extent Shyamalan may have been too close to this story, if he's been telling it for years as he made it up... I'm hoping his next attempt he'll spend more time thinking through his writing and less time focusing on surprising the audience with twists and turns.

    That said, I liked the movie. Then again, though writing can make or break a film, for me the number one thing is the cinematography, and Shyamalan's team has that one down. But I'm not going to expect a screenwriter to forgive Shyamalan for his lazy writing. :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:05 PM  

  • Oh yeah Nick - If you couldn't tell on that last comment I posted about Shyamalan, it's me Blackfaer. :) Forgot I was outside of LJ!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:05 PM  

  • That comment sounded like you, Blackfear, and is typically well-reasoned and argued. You are right to praise the cinematography, and I'd expect nothing less from someone with your eye.

    You're right that audience disrespect factors into my disappointment, but while Halle Berry's example is about cynical career calculation, and Lemmon's about, well, laziness, I suppose (such a pity from one of my all-time favorite actors), Shyamalan's is the result of such self-destructive ego. It's as if he views the idea of review and revision itself as an insult. When I started writing I used to have that reflex but I grew out of it. I fight it still, sometimes, and always will need to, but I recognize that it needs to be fought.

    I hope if I ever achieve some real measure of success in this town I won't go in this direction, but I recognize the possibility, and so that feeds my anger. He's earned a power few filmmakers have, and he's being irresponsible with it.

    If there's a moral to his fairy tale, it's "Do What I Say, Because I Say So". That's not the kind of fairy tale I'll be telling my kids.

    I hope you've seen Pan's Labyrinth, which triumphs at everything Lady in the Water intended to do and is just as magnificently photographed/designed.

    By Blogger Nick, at 1:19 PM  

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