Not Waving But Drowning

Lucky old Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), the newspaper film critic in M Night Shyamalan’s bizarre and incompetent new film about a beautiful sea nymph called Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who inspires ordinary people to do magical things. The socially awkward, snippy new arrival to The Cove, an apartment building managed by Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), encounters a CGI monster three-quarters of the way through The Lady In The Water, and is so spared the sight of talents like Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright and Bryce Dallas Howard struggle through to an uncaring finish, not waving but drowning.

The film, from a story Shyamalan made up to read to his children before bed, starts badly, with an introductory hieroglyphic animation that gives a scant introduction to a magical universe of undersea creatures that once lived in harmony with man. These angelic creatures, called Narfs, make occasional forays onto land from The Blue World to impart wisdom to Man and inspire peace on earth. Trying to stop them are the demonic Snarks, camouflaged wolves with red eyes and sharp teeth. Later, when it suits Shyamalan, we discover that the Snarks are policed by a similarly difficult-to-see gang of cosmic monkeys called the Tarturic, but only if there’s a full moon and an ‘r’ in the month and you touch your nose while turning around three times. Or some such. Cleveland is charged with assembling the team that will cast the complicated spell in order to allow the dying Story return to her own world, a Dirty Dozen of freaks and dropouts that must all play some part in the ceremony. All he must do is figure out who does what and when. This slow, convoluted casting, cued up by a taciturn Korean mother’s half-remembered old folk tale, conveniently allows Cleveland to do all those things that a diligent writer might do. He gets out and meets people, asks questions. He observes and listens. This emergence, which is told in a mundane array of episodic chapters, is the second half of the film. Shyamalan, who appears to be making it up as he goes along, even has his snooty film critic explain to Cleveland the various cookie-cutter rules of Hollywood storytelling, describing how the permutations might play out in a supposedly barbed taunt that only casts the directors own fluency and motivation in a further poor light.

In casting himself as a pivotal character, a blocked writer whose half-finished book holds the key to the future happiness of the world no less, Shyamalan displays an unfettered egotism only previously suspected. His is a strange, blank performance, played mostly in close-up. He’s no actor and this time, as director, fares little better. From the get go, Lady In The Water has a rushed, unfinished feel, a sepulchral pace and a rapidly dwindling interest. There is none of the grand staging, inventive camera positioning or other directorial grace notes Shyamalan has shown before. The toothy Snarks offer a few ‘boo’ moments to maintain attention levels but otherwise the production follows the storyline, being flat, cramped and bland.

Not even the usually dependable ensemble cast (and ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle) can rescue the film, itself an exemplar of the maxim that ‘cinema starts on the page’ as any of its own crippled allusions; to writers and their interior voices or faith in the salvation of imagination. Giamatti is the only one here with any presence, even if his stuttering, damaged loner never emerges as a true hero. Damsel in distress Bryce Dallas Howard does well initially, her pale features giving her a compelling, otherworldly look, but she is removed from the second half of the film, huddled in a shower cubicle spouting riddles while Cleveland rushes around enabling her, and his own, self-actualisation. Almost everyone we are introduced to in the building is a writer of some description; novelist, diarist or storyteller. One guy loves crosswords so much we never see him without a pencil and a folded newspaper. His ten year old son helps by reading secret messages hidden on the back of a cornflakes box, much in the same way Shyamalan does, you might think. These eccentric wordsmiths, and their various fellow tenants, are all wilfully inventive, wise and well-meaning and, crucially, able to suspend disbelief on cue, especially when the visitor called ‘Story’ arrives out of the blue. The film is not peopled with characters – these are beasts of burden, all carrying heavy metaphors and waiting to drop them off at appropriate points to supply the plot. Curiously, the heavier the metaphor, the less dramatic weight it adds.

Lady In The Water is a vainglorious self-portrait drawn as a simplistic fairy tale and a thundering waste of resources – talent, reputation and audience time. It is the flimsiest, most apologetic feature yet from the flim-flam man Shyamalan, whose output since his breakthrough film The Sixth Sense has been a steady decline into mediocrity. Referenced throughout the script and prominent in the advertising is the director’s coy line about his film being merely a ‘bedtime story’. Some might think this is misdirection, another devious cinematic trick. They might expect to find instead a reinvention of old genetic memories, doing for folk tales what Sixth Sense did for ghost stories, or Signs did for paranoid UFO movies. Lady In The Water has nothing like that. It is dull and insipid and fatuous. There is no enchantment here; just foolish, immature thinking, babbling gobbledegook and ultimately, embarrassment for all concerned.

4 comments:

Carl V. said...

Have to totally disagree with you on everything except Shyamalan's acting ability. Loved this as did the group of people I saw it with. I think one of the great things about his movies is that I consistently find people who adore one movie above all others and its interesting to find out the whys and wherefores of this. I think Unbreakable is pure genius. And I was enamored of Lady in the Water from start to finish. Obviously entertainment is largely a 'to each his own' thing. As always, enjoy reading your revies even when I don't see eye to eye with you.

John said...

Like you say Carl V, to each his own and there are few places that truism is more appropriate than the picture house. But if the ultimate truth about movies is that the best ones are good stories, well told, Lady in the Water doesn't come close.

I like The Sixth Sense lots and the first half of Unbreakable is genius, but everything else has been a disappointment - this one only slightly less than The Village, which had me grinding my teeth ten minutes in. In all of his work, I get the feeling that although he is not presenting complicated ideas, he thinks he is. This is the immaturity and egotism I was getting at in the review - it destroys his cinema thinking, and weakens his own stories.

Of course, liking one film or disliking another doesn't make you and your friends stooges of The Great Whore Hollywood, or a crowd of idiots. It 's just an indication. ;)

Incidentally, over here Lady is being advertised as a straight horror flick - lots of snappy editing, screaming and shadowy, toothy Snarks in the TV trailer (nothing about 'Story' or magic or bedtime anymore) - an indication of how confused and desperate the publicity campaign is. Any audience will be sorry if they go looking for gory thrills.

A further incidental - I happen to be reading Patrick MacGilligan's Hitchcock bio at the moment, A Life In Darkness And In Light. Shyamalamadingdong has a long way to go yet.

Carl V. said...

I get increasingly frustrated with trailers and Lady in the Water and The Village were two of the worst as far as adverstising them as horror movies when they most assuredly are not. I'm not sure how much if anything Shyamalan has to do with that but I think his response to these past two movies would have been slightly different, especially for The Village, if the trailers hadn't been so deceptive as to the type of movie the audience was going to see.

Not knowing much about Shyamalan at all...I've read and listened to few interviews...I can't ascribe to the whole ego thing. I'm not always certain that just because a director wants to make a certain movie his way that it has to be assumed that he is on an ego trip. That's not to say that he isn't cuz he very well could be, but I heard the same kind of stuff about Peter Jackson in regards to making King Kong and I just didn't agree with it.

On a different note, since you're over there, have you had a chance to see Renaissance or Angel-a yet?

Fence said...

I liked it. The beginning was a bit slow, but once you switch your brain into "whimsy" mode it makes the film a lot better. Plus remembering that it was made for his children rather than for a general release.

Interesting that you say that about the trailer because the only trailer I've seen for this is a very slow one, boring even. Just Heep going about maintaining stuff, and then at the very end a splashing and "how many of you are there". I know it quite well because I've been seeing it every single time I've gone to the cinema (Cineworld) recently. If recently cover months.