Mark Reviews Movies

LADY IN THE WATER

1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Sarita Choudhury, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, Jared Harris, M. Night Shyamalan

MPAA Rating:   (for some frightening sequences)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 7/21/06


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Review by Mark Dujsik

What happened to M. Night Shyamalan? I'm not talking about the obvious downfall of creative output shown by The Village and his newest endeavor Lady in the Water. I'm talking about the fact that he wears the negative critical and public response to his last movie so blatantly on his sleeve this time around. What should be a wondrous excursion into Shyamalan's version of a modern fairy tale is undermined by the writer/director's bitter tone. I suppose Shyamalan has some things to be bitter about, but I doubt insulting the critical establishment and the general audience is an effective means to an end. At one point, a character wonders, "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?" and the answer, it turns out, is the film critic living in this tale's apartment complex setting. Now I'd be willing to give Shyamalan a little bit of ground if he had questioned the intention of people who evaluate the works of others, but this whole idea that interpretation equals arrogance is pushing it a bit. After all, the only people I know who enjoyed The Village are those who presumed Shyamalan's intention was as political allegory. Besides, isn't it arrogance to presume the critic's intention is one of self-importance?

We'll get back to all of this soon (and apparently piss Shyamalan off a little more by interpreting his work), but I'll tell you what's going on to get me riled up a bit in the first place. A somewhat longwinded introduction gives us all the backstory we need (and with stick figures, no less). Early in the days of mankind, humans lived near the water and were assisted by people who live in the sea. Slowly, man stopped listening to the water-people and began to move away from the water and do all kinds of fighting and destruction. Now, every so often, a messenger from the sea comes to visit the world of man to point certain members of humanity in the right direction, but the task is full of peril from other creatures who want to stop them for some reason or another. One of these creatures is about to visit Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the superintendent of an apartment complex outside of Philadelphia. One night as he's about to fall asleep, he hears splashing in the pool. In an attempt to rescue the person, he knocks himself out and awakens later to see Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), one of the nymphs, in his apartment.

What follows are a lot of red herrings, arrogant (yes, I can use that word, too) acts of creative masturbation, and plot turns that are supposedly original but merely deviate from the formula the movie itself presents as the gospel of cinematic formula. Part of the problem is that there's no real sense of discovery of the movie's mythology, since everything is spelled out up front. Instead, the entire plot consists of Cleveland trying to determine which of his tenants is Story's "vessel" and which are meant to help her return home. The vessel is the person for whom the nymph is to serve as a muse, and guess who that person is. Why it's Vick, who's played by Shyamalan himself (What a twist!). Vick's collection of writings will change the world for the better, and he will be martyred for them. Yeah, film critics are the arrogant ones. Once Cleveland brings Vick to meet Story, then the problem is finding all of the right people within the complex who will work together to help Story return home.

What I haven't mentioned yet is the fact that Cleveland himself is interpreting an old bedtime story related to him by one of his tenants. He only enlists the help of the film critic (played by Bob Balaban) as a shortcut. The critic argues that there's no originality left and everything is based on formula. Oddly, when all is said and done, the critic gets it right, and it's Cleveland who's misinterpreted everything. Don't mention that to Shyamalan, though, since he apparently thinks he's being original by having the critic appear wrong. The outcome of the story is still based on formula and clichés, but Shyamalan simply fails to mention those that he doesn't feel the need to contradict. I suppose I should also mention the film critic is the most interesting character in the movie, and this is a movie that contains nymphs and other mythological creatures. The nymphs are called Narfs, and the wolf that can appear as a lump of grass and is chasing Story is called a Scrunt. There are also Tartutics, which are justice-dispensing monkeys (not my phrase, but a damn good one) and serve as the deus ex machina, the ultimate third-act cliché.

If Shyamalan is upset by critics ripping on his movies, that's perfectly fine, but if he's going to vent (and this is only a suggestion), he might make a better impact keeping his grudge out of his work. Or if he is going to make a comment on the role of the critic in society, it should be more thoughtful and less self-important than Lady in the Water. Interpreting art is not just the work of the critic but also of an active audience; it just goes with the territory. If Shyamalan thinks his audiences should be like sheep who are awed by whatever he puts out, then what's the point of making art in the first place?

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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