Lady in the Water [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #46]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #45.  Spoilers ahead.  

Lady in the Water

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Release Date:  July 21, 2006
My age then:  35 years old

What it is about:  Apartment building superintendent Cleveland Heep meets a mysterious young woman who is swimming in his pool, and discovers that she is Story, an otherworldly creature called a Narf, sent to our world in order to bring inspiration to a writer whose ideas are destined to change the world. Once this is done Story needs help getting home, as she is pursued by a vicious creature called the Scrunt. Cleveland discovers that Story is meant to be helped by a variety of figures who fulfill various archetypes, and he becomes convinced that the other tenants in the building are these people.

Starring Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep and Bryce Dallas Howard as Story. Playing some of the tenants of the building are Bob Balaban (an obnoxious film critic), Jeffrey Wright (a dad who likes crossword puzzles), Cindy Cheung (a university student whose mother knows of the legends of the Narf), M. Night Shyamalan (the writer), Mary Beth Hurt (a nice older lady) and Sarita Choudhury (as the writer’s sister).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I was pretty aware of this movie as part of a general knowledge of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, and all the criticism around it. I knew the overall plot and some of the twists, but not the fine details. Most reports of the movie had given me the impression that it was pretty bad, although I knew at least one guy who liked it.

Reality: There is a bit of continuum amongst movie buffs when it comes to M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, related specifically to how long one could hold onto being a fan of his work. He came on the scene with The Sixth Sense in 1999, a movie which people generally agreed was stylish and well-done, and followed that up with Unbreakable, which many consider to be just as good or better (as I do). But after that, an increasing number of people seemed to find their patience for the director’s peculiarities to be wearing thin. Many still liked Signs, but others found it contrived and unbelievable. Even more dropped off with The Village in 2004, calling its final revelations ludicrous. And by the time Lady in the Water hit in 2006, most people had had enough, and were grateful to have jumped ship before the nightmarish trifecta of The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth came along–with their average Rotten Tomatoes score of about 11% positive ratings.

For me, the last film of his work that I’d seen was The Village (at least up until Glass, and that was just for the connection with Unbreakable). As I finally watched Lady in the Water just recently, I was quickly reminded why–it didn’t take long before I was pretty put-off. The movie has got its scary moments and effective bits of direction, but it’s an exercise in perseverance to get to them.

Shyamalan’s approach has a tendency to detach his viewers from his characters, keeping us at arm’s length from the story’s emotions (even while still providing some beautiful imagery). But in a plot that is so built on an invented mythology, it’s all the more essential that the character’s reactions and decisions make emotional sense. Because that is missing, so much of Lady in the Water just feels like gibberish.

Paul Giamatti’s Heep seems to accept Story’s assertions of being a “Narf” with so little convincing that you wonder if you missed something. And since this is what the film’s whole narrative is built on, it makes everything else unbelievable. Indeed, the entire cast of characters seems to buy into Heep’s outrageous assertions very easily, except of course when the narrative requires them to have doubts. Essentially, everyone simply reacts the way the movie wants to as it forces them in different directions without doing the story or character-related work to get them there. The worst example might be Bob Balaban’s obnoxious film critic running into a monster in a dark hallway, and then narrating his own death scene rather than just running away.

Ironically, one could say that the very premise of the film–that people are unknowingly living out narrative forms and archetypes–supports this approach, but that is a cheap argument and does not make the film any better.

The cast of the film are not served well by the material they are working with. I’ve seen some of these guys in other things, and they are obviously capable of good work, but are so hampered here by the script and the direction that everyone just seems false and artificial. In that sense, it’s a little bit like watching the Star Wars prequels as directed by George Lucas. Perhaps coming across the best is Bryce Dallas Howard as Story, who is supposed to be confused and disconnected from the world, so her ethereal stares fit the movie’s world rather than work against it.

However, to give credit where credit is due–I did think Paul Giamatti was good in the scene where his character’s pain was revealed in a way that brought supernatural healing to Story. The scene is built on the same shaky foundation as the rest of the film, but the performance was good.

When all is said and done, the movie wants me to accept a lot of things but doesn’t give me any reason to do so. And so it’s hard to see the idea of a writer whose ideas are destined to divide and ultimately transform the world being played by the director himself as anything but self-serving (even though I obviously don’t know anything about his personal motivations). And the fact that the only “villain” in the film is the arrogant critic who thinks he understands stories before he experiences them only supports this notion. When the way he completely misunderstands the story helps to lead to his own death, its the movie that comes across as arrogant, not the character.

But even if all this that is all wild misinterpretation, this is still a movie which features a boy spouting piles of exposition because he can just “see it” in the artwork of cereal boxes. It’s a scene so ridiculous that one might expect it was actually a Saturday Night Live skit. But no, it’s the actual movie you are watching, and you are meant to take it seriously.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Lady in the Water is not a good movie.

But it might just be the very best film I’ve ever seen which ends with four leafy-chimpanzees attacking a leafy wolf so that a leafy eagle can carry a beautiful water nymph into the sky to get her home to safety..

See here for the Master List.

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