A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

 
 

LADY IN THE WATER j

2006, PG-13, 110 mins.

 

Paul Giamatti: Cleveland Hepp / Bryce Dallas Howard: Story / Jeffrey Wright: Mr. Dury / Bob Balaban: Harry Farber / Sarita Choudhurry: Ana Rain

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan’s newest thriller – LADY IN THE WATER – has been labeled by himself as  simply “a bedtime story” in its advertising and promotional trailers.  Apparently, the film is based on an actual children’s story that he has told to his own tykes to prepare them for a blissful night’s rest. 

It's funny, but I've always considered bedtime stories the kind that helps to prepare a child for sleep.  If anything, after watching LADY IN THE WATER I am firmly convinced that Shyamalan’s concept of a bedtime story is one that instantly puts people to sleep.  

To say that I had incredibly high hopes for LADY IN THE WATER is the broadest of understatements.  The preview of the film alone was such a well orchestrated and involving teaser that it seemingly worked successfully as a little two-minute film on its own. That trailer had intrigue, interest, suspense, and it tantalized me.  I wanted to see more.  Yet, it’s kind of shocking the final product that resulted, because there is not one moment of genuine intrigue and interest in the film’s entire 112 minutes when compared to its preview.  For a film that wants to be in the chilling thriller genre, that alone is the kiss of death.  What emerges here is not an eerie, suspenseful, and invigorating scarefest and fairy tale, but rather a murky, silly, ridiculous, convoluted, confusing, and flakey vanity project.  The film is so tedious, so far-fetched, so disjointed, so agonizingly lackluster, and so lacking in awe and enthusiasm that I can’t even label it as an ambitious mess.  

It’s ironic saying all of this, because Shyamalan’s long-time business partner, Walt Disney Pictures, felt the need to part ways with the director over “creative differences” with the film.  Shyamalan abruptly jumped ship and took the film for Warner Brothers for distribution.  In one of the rarest of all instances, the suits at a studio made the wise and correct artistic decision.  If anything, Disney is the winner here, not Shyamalan, because LADY IN THE WATER is one of the director’s most alienating, puzzling, and self-absorbed projects he’s committed to celluloid.  It’s one of the more frustrating experiences I’ve had in a cinema all year; a work that propels one to needlessly and endlessly check their watch more times than it scares and excites.  If I were a doctor, I would prescribe this film as a definitive cure for insomnia. 

What the hell has happened to Shyamalan?  Seven years ago he was undeniably the hottest new director in Hollywood since, arguably, Steven Spielberg.  He hit box office and critical mass with his Oscar nominated supernatural thriller, THE SIXTH SENSE, in 1999 (still one of the more inventive and intriguing genre pictures of the last decade, with a twist ending that genuinely shocked).  His follow-up was 2000’s UNBREAKABLE, which was one of the more absorbing and interesting super hero films I’ve seen.  He reached the upper echelon with his masterstroke work, 2002’s SIGNS, which starred pre-PASSION OF THE CHRIST-crazy Mel Gibson as a preacher that defends his farm against extraterrestrial visitors.  That film reminded us that the best and scariest horror films frighten audiences by the implied presence of a menace, not by actually showing it.  People (including myself) have often thought of Shyamalan as a curious hybrid of Spielberg, Kubrick, and Hitchcock.  SIGNS reflected this ethereal mixture to its fullest. 

Then came the dreadful and downright dumb THE VILLAGE, which I had no pleasure in putting on the very top of my list of 2004’s worst entertainments.  They say that the bigger the person, the harder they fall.  That’s how I felt about THE VILLAGE.  Shyamalan had established himself as such a daring, bold, and creative cinematic visionary that THE VILLAGE came crashing down hard under the weight of its own inanity.  It was a would-be gothic horror film with a premise that, let’s just say, did not hold up at all.  After the great spirit, energy, and vitality that he demonstrated with his first three films, THE VILLAGE was a real shocker; a bad film that should not have been made by such a gifted talent.  At least I was willing to give Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt.  I mean, it can’t be all sunshine and roses…right? 

My patience to give Shyamalan another chance is all but vacant now after enduring LADY IN THE WATER.  If THE VILLAGE could be described as the director’s journey to his own Waterloo, then LADY IN THE WATER is his unfortunate arrival.  All it took on his part was some focus and perseverance and he could have made a dramatic u-turn back to respectability.  Now, he has two categorically awful films under his young belt, which leads me to seriously believe that his best days are really behind him.  For a creative auteur that single-handedly reinvented the thriller genre and infused some much needed ingenuity in it, watching LADY IN THE WATER is akin to discovering that your son is a crack addict.  Shyamalan has definitely substituted inspiration here for utter portentousness.  How anyone could leave this film without letting out a great big ‘huh?’ is beyond me.  When you have no magic, no sense of intrigue, no whimsy, and – hell – no authentic scares in a thriller, then what’s the point? 

What’s worse is the film’s script, which just may take the David Lynchian Award for Perplexity and Convolution.  This is a “bedtime story” that does not require kids to understand it, but rather advanced PhD’s in plot deconstruction.  The story is so bewildering and puzzling that it actually goes out of its way to have an annoying Asian teenager with a voice as teeth grating as one hundred Jar Jar Bink’s to explain every detail to the main character.  Characters go on and on and on and engage in expositional diatribes for what seems like forever.  By the ten minute mark I was bewildered by how preposterous and infantile the story was and how completely idiotic and naïve almost all of the characters were.  It’s amazing how people with reasonably good heads on their shoulders are willing to believe in a mermaid-like woman and giant dogs made of grass, but I digress. 

To have mercy on you, I will try my best to dissect this plot.   In the beginning we meet apartment superintendent Cleveland Heep (the always watchable Paul Giamatti).  His days are painfully routine as he is forced to be the lap dog of the tenants’ every request.  Late one night he discovers that all is not right with the nearby swimming pool.  Someone is splashing around in it after hours and Heep goes one night to investigate.  To his amazement, he finds a strange young woman named – get this – Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who was forced to undergo a role in THE VILLAGE).  She does not live anywhere near the apartment.  Her sudden appearance is a real mystery. 

Now, I developed migraines just thinking of the potential story possibilities from this point.  What happens next will be tough to follow, so bare with me.  We very quickly discover that she is a mermaid creature called a “narf” from an old, Eastern bedtime story.  Huh?  Her mission is to come to earth to extend an enlightened hand to one mortal.  Unfortunately, during her earthbound mission she is pursued by a wolf-like creature that lives in the grass and can camouflage itself in it called a Scrunt.  A scrunt can be seen by a narf, but not by a human unless they stand with their backs to it and look at the reds of their eyes through a mirror.  Huh? 

It gets worse.  The scrunts want Story awfully bad and wishes to inject her with some poisonous Kii.  Mixed into this confusing plot are the tartutics – three very malevolent monkey creatures that live in the trees that possess the only power available to save the narf from extermination.  Huh?  Most humans can’t stop the scrunts; only one special mysterious human that has the ability to look it straight in the eyes can scare it away.  Narfs can’t fight scrunts, most humans can’t fight scrunts, unless you’re the ‘chosen one’, but tartutics can fight scrunts, but only during the last few minutes of the film.   I was hoping to get my tartutic out of the theatre and seek sunlight for fear of seriously losing my faculties.

LADY IN THE WATER is a gale force tropical film disaster.  Its story prances around from one absurdity to the next and we are forced to sit through Oscar worthy actors uses the terms “narf” and ‘tartutic” like they were in some cheesy 1950’s alien invasion film (I guess the even more annoying “Those we dare not speak of” was taken).  The film tries to desperately develop chemistry between the ill-fated Heep and the strange Story, but they have zero chemistry on screen.  Their characters are not interesting either.  They are essentially witless drones slaving to the services of laughable dialogue and an even more idiotic plot.  I mean, Heep looks like a smart chap, but his complete willingness to believe in narfs and the “Blue World” that they come from made me want to bang my head against the wall repeatedly. 

The Asian teen (played with teeth-grating gusto by Cindy Chueng) goes down as one of the most convenient secondary characters of recent memory.  She lives at the apartments with her grandmother, who just happens to know every detail of the ancient narfian bedtime story.  So, when Heep needs details, he goes to her and she provides every discernable plot point that he (and we) need to know.  Shyamalan himself also appears in one of his characteristic cameos, but he’s got more screen time here and his presence is a bit more distracting this time.  Other stock, stereotyped characters filter through the film, but the only truly memorable one is the newly arrived film critic, played hilariously by Bob Balaban, whose own comments on the intellectual bankruptcy of modern cinema seems to have a lot of unintended echoes of the film he populates.

There is not tension in the story.  There is no drama in the story.  There is no magic or mysticism in the story.  There is no real conflict in the story.  Most important of all, there is no payoff whatsoever after a laborious build-up of anticipation.  Shyamalan is a master of giving us a premise and then – in one calculating move – pulls the carpet from under us late in the third act with an abrupt twist.  There is none of that here in this film, which comes across as more amateurishly anti-climatic than even THE VILLAGE.   There were just so many tangents this story could have (and should have) taken.  What if Heep did not readily believe that Story was a fictional creature and did not believe in narfs and scrunts?  What if the film was an investigation into whether Story is whom she says she is?  The story could have developed to a crescendo where the audience had its doubts and suspicions as to her real identity and could have garnered some legitimate mystery.  Instead, we have a lot of stupid people running away from poorly rendered CGI grass covered dogs.  C'mon!

For an innovative director that I thought was seriously going to be the next Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan has made me categorically rethink my stance with LADY IN THE WATER.  His follow-up to the dreary and lame THE VILLAGE should have been a triumphant return to form for the young maverick director.  Instead, Shyamalan has gone from having a perfect cinematic win/loss record to barely playing over 500.  I am willing to forgive one ghastly and wretched film, but now he has two back-to-back with the utterly preposterous, snooze-inducing, monotonous, and unexciting LADY IN THE WATER.  The film is a silly and shameful exercise in wrongheaded filmmaking, which highlights Shyamalan at the ultimate height of creative folly.  It’s an embarrassing turn for the once promising filmmaker that showcases his dark descent into the most verbose and ostentatious storytelling waters.  It’s still not too late for him to return to the fine form he demonstrated with his first three films, but if he churns out another piece of dull poppycock escapism like LADY IN THE WATER, then it’s safe to say that it’s three strikes, and he’s out.

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