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Lady in the Water (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 July 2006
“The Village” was the stumble, “Lady in the Water” is the fall. Unless he can come up with a winning film next time, M. Night Shyamalan’s career may well be over.

A book now in stores, “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale,” by Michael Bamberger (with lots of input from Shyamalan) tells how the director came to leave Disney at to bring this project to Warner Bros.

Shyamalan made “The Sixth Sense,” a dazzling hit worldwide. It wasn’t his first movie as a director, but definitely and firmly put him on the map. “Unbreakable,” which followed, was a bit of a disappointment, but still original and entertaining. “Signs,” which everyone seems to like more than I do, was also a hit, but “The Village” wasn’t. It also wasn’t a flop, but it was far less interesting and far less original than Shyamalan’s previous three films.

For some time, he’d been telling a bedtime story to his daughters, and came to believe that this make-it-up-as-you-go-along fantasy adventure was just what he should do as his next big screen project. He took it to Disney, which had released all his films from “Sixth Sense” on, but the reaction by the people in charge angered and dismayed him. So he took the movie to Warner Bros.

This story is related in detail in Bamberger’s book—but even giving Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to understand why he reacted as he did. Yes, the executives had lots of questions about his script, but they were in charge of the money necessary to make it; Shyamalan didn’t have to answer to investors. And ultimately, they even AGREED to make a movie based on Shyamalan’s unaltered script. But no, his (enormous) ego was wounded, and in what amounts to a snit fit he severed his ties with the studio that had backed him all along.

Granted, he also made them a lot of money. But that’s not likely to happen with “Lady in the Water.” The questions the executives asked were reasonable, and still apply to the finished film, which is a ponderous, pompous bore, one that could have been made only by someone so arrogant as to be completely convinced his words and work are golden. In very recent interviews, Shyamalan himself has expressed some concern that perhaps his movie won’t connect with audiences.
The story is set, we learn very late, in Philadelphia (where Shyamalan lives). The setting is a somewhat seedy apartment house complex called, grandly, The Cove. The manager, Cleveland Heep (beware of stories with “funny” names), is a lonely, hard-working guy who has only the slightest of relationships with any of the tenants. As the movie opens, he is welcoming the newest tenant, Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), a pompous twerp, who’s a movie and book reviewer.

Heep (Paul Giamatti) is trying to learn who’s been using the swimming pool after closing (an incredible 7 pm) and clogging it up. He spots the mysterious intruder, but falls in and seems to be drowning, but he wakes up on the couch in his little house that’s in, but not part of, the apartment complex. He’s been rescued by a frail-looking young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard); she was naked, but is now wearing one of Heep’s own shirts. Her name, she tells him, is Story. (Remember what I said about weird names.) She is a narf. Her skin is pale and translucent; supposed it took four hours every day to make her up to look like this, but the result doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.

An opening prologue told of how in ancient times, people and those who dwell in the sea were in constant contact, but humanity drifted away from the seaside (huh?) and lost contact with the sea dwellers. There’s also something about wolf-like creatures called Scrunts, and a giant eagle. Humanity needs to regain contact with the sea creatures—the narfs. They helped us, but mankind drifted away from the shore (this would be news to anthropologists) and have lost the wisdom the narfs imparted. This background is formless, unconnected to any culture, and lacks any resonances or suggestions of links with authentic legends. The names are strange, not reminiscent of any consistent language.

Heep asks Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), a college student living in the complex with her mother (June Kyoko Lu), about the narf. The mother seems to know a lot about them, and relays the information to Heep. He keeps coming back to them for more information, which they dutifully give him. They’re never wrong, but sometimes he is, in how he interprets what he’s been told. At one point, Young-Soon says her mother would be more willing to tell more if Heep were more childish; uncomfortably—for the character, perhaps the actor and definitely the audience—he follows suit, munching on cookies, getting a milk moustache, and curling up on the couch with his hands between his legs.

The movie doesn’t really have a plotline, just a lot of incidents strung on the slender thread of the narf (a sea nymph, or would that be nymf?) and the tales associated with her. The repetition of Heep returning again and again to the mother and daughter is mildly amusing but finally becomes merely plodding and seemingly endless. However, it is what the movie is hung upon: Heep learns that a legend regarding the narf is being enacted right there in the apartment house, and that some of the inhabitants have roles described in the legend. There’s something about a big eagle showing up soon to collect Story, but this is a good thing; the Scrunt, and some briefly-glimpsed other creatures, the monkey-like Tartutics, are the bad things. Sort of. Maybe. Anyway, Heep takes it upon himself to figure out the legend, assign the correct roles to the right tenants (none of whom seem the least bit surprised or skeptical about any of this), and save the day. Or something. It’s all very wispy, populated with wispy characters, and lacking the kind of innocent magic the director seems to have been striving for.

Shyamalan, who wrote and directed, made up this story for his children on a night-by-night basis, and it feels that way in the movie, too. He added more material, more complications, just to keep the kids entertained, and the movie follows suit. But nothing, not a single thing, we hear sounds even slightly like a real myth or legend, certainly not one Asian in origin. It has a cobbled-together feel, a one-damned-thing-after-another structure common to bedtime stories, but very uncommon in authentic legends. At first, we’re intrigued by each new revelation, but soon they become wearisome, almost a joke.

Shyamalan’s sense of humor has always been unusual; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it was organic to the material. Not here. For example, one of Heep’s tenants has been working out for a long time—but only on the right side of his body. He has a grotesquely developed right arm and leg, a normal left arm and leg. Why? This never has anything to do with the story, it’s merely a filigree that should have been dispensed with. The guy just looks grotesque, and Freddy Rodriguez, the actor who plays him, is charmless here.

So is the movie. Even Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron), who has wonderful, angular features, can’t generate any sense of ethereal charm. She’s also very limited in terms of actual mobility; we never see her walking or moving in any way (except when she’s dragged by a vicious Scrunt). Despite the title, we don’t even see her in the water, except in one very brief shot. So why the title? The setup and title suggest a modern-day version of “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid,” but it’s leagues from that old movie. It’s not even “Miranda.”

The rest of the apartment dwellers are eccentric, every damned one of them. There’s a group of young men who seem to have drifted in out of the 1960s; they sit around their apartment smoking pot and talking about stuff. There’s a group of odd sisters who never say anything to anyone, including each other, but giggle a lot and swim in the pool together. Another guy (Bill Irwin) stays in his book-lined apartment all day, watching news on a black and white TV.

Vick (Shyamalan himself) and his sister Anna (Sarita Choudhury) share an apartment. He’s vaguely lost, working on an important book. She’s more outgoing. Shyamalan generally appears in his movies, but this is the largest role he’s given himself since before “The Sixth Sense.” He’s an adequate actor, but can’t suggest the necessary depths. There’s something uncomfortable about Story (who can sort of see the future) telling Vic that the book he’s working on will be of great importance to a future leader, that it will, in fact, change the world for the better. The reason this is uncomfortable is that Vic is the writer and director—and Shyamalan seems to be making these claims about this very movie.

One of the brightest acting “discoveries” of the last ten years or so, Paul Giammi has given any number of amusing, unusual performances in movie after movie, even nominated for an Oscar for “Sideways.” But Heep is a very limited role. He has a shadow in his past, which is never adequately explained (but involves the loss of his family), and he stutters when he’s talking to anyone other than Story. Why does he stutter? This seems to be important, but again, is never directly dealt with, and it makes dialogue scenes awkward—especially when Giammatti seems to have discovered an entire new WAY to stutter. Giamatti is clearly working very hard on this role, but there are no edges, no handholds, for his talent to seize onto. He’s exactly the same semi-hapless shlub at the end as he is at the beginning—but that clearly isn’t what Shyamalan intended for us to perceive.

Bob Balaban, as Farber (from Manny Farber, I suppose) the movie critic, is the closest thing the movie has to a human villain. It was probably unwise of Shyamalan to portray a movie critic as a pretentious, arrogant know-it-all. He’s going to be stung for this, but of course, this also puts him one step ahead of critics: he can attribute any negative reviews—and he’s going to get them—to his depicting a critic so harshly. But almost no critics I know act or think like this guy does; he’s as much of a fantasy as the Scrunt.

The score by James Newton Howard is generally effective but unmemorable. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle has worked for years in Asia, shooting many of the best-known movies from that area, including “In the Mood for Love” and “Hero.” Usually, his films are richly colored, well-composed, but here he’s been required to shoot with very low light; in the first scene at the pool, Giamatti’s features are completely obscured in shadow. The same is true of Martin Childs’s production design: the apartment complex simply isn’t very interesting, and yet we never see anything else. It’s oddly landscaped, though, with an overgrown patch of tall, weedy-looking grass near the pool.

The movie is ostensibly about finding your purpose in life, but the purposes it demonstrates seem arcane at best. One guy (the usually fine Jeffrey Wright) is a wiz at crossword puzzles. And that’s it. Another tenant is a cat lady, who supposedly loves animals—but we see only one cat. And she has few other traits. So it goes from apartment to apartment: everyone is different, everyone has a trait—and only one. Everybody is also unconvincingly credulous about anything Heep tells them.

“Lady in the Water” is amateurish, the kind of script that studio executives SHOULD have questioned—and the writer-director should have at least considered that these questions were designed to make a more coherent movie, one that would have more audience appeal. It’s hard to imagine any audience bonding with “Lady in the Water;” it’s slow-paced, repetitious, peculiarly unimaginative, and finally falls completely flat. Next time, Mr. Shyamalan, pay attention to intelligent advice.

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