Lady in the Water
Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay : M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Paul Giamatti (Cleveland Heep), Bryce Dallas Howard (Story), Jeffrey Wright (Mr. Dury), Bob Balaban (Harry Farber), Sarita Choudhury (Anna Ran), Cindy Cheung (Young-Soon Choi), M. Night Shyamalan (Vick Ran), Freddy Rodríguez (Reggie), Bill Irwin (Mr. Leeds), Mary Beth Hurt (Mrs. Bell), Noah Gray-Cabey (Joey Dury), June Kyoto Lu (Mrs. Choi)
Not since John Boorman’s ambitiously misguided and deranged 1977 sequel to The Exorcist has there been a film of more straight-faced metaphysical silliness than M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. And rarely has a film so deserved an auteurist possessive credit before its title, for Lady in the Water is Shyamalan through and through. It embodies in the boldest way all of his strengths and weaknesses, wrapping them up in a self-described “bedtime story” of delusional proportions that belie its single, hermetic setting.
But, more than anything, Lady in the Water is a work of great hubris--a jaw-dropping exercise in which a populist artist tests his audience’s limits. Will they swallow this pill whole or spit it back only halfway down? Shyamalan is the modern cinema’s great narrative trickster who ironically doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. If I thought he did, I would label Lady in the Water a masterful self-parody of his earlier fantasy-horror films, but I can’t help but sense that, despite the moments of comic relief, Shyamalan is dead serious about his bedtime hokum.
The entire story takes place within the confines of a non-descript apartment building in Philadelphia called “The Cove.” The superintendent is a slouch-shouldered, stuttering schlub named Cleveland Heeb (Paul Giamati, marvelous as always) who, like all of Shyamalan’s protagonists, harbors a dark, troubling secret. One night, he falls into the pool after he thinks he’s caught someone swimming after hours and is rescued by a supernatural water nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). A brief animated prologue to the film, which tells of how humans stopped listening to mystical “water people” ages ago, has already established the film’s mythical background.
However, that was just the base, as the crux of the film involves Cleveland trying to piece together the myth to help Story get back to “the blue world,” which she, of course, can’t talk about (Howard spends most of the story just staring, and while she is meant to be otherworldly, she comes off as quite creepy). Cleveland gets most of his information from Mrs. Choi (June Kyoto Lu), a tenant in the building whose memories of an ancient Eastern myth have to be translated through her very modern daughter (Cindy Cheung).
It all ends up pointing to none other than Shyamalan himself, who plays a struggling writer whose ordained encounter with Story will provide the inspiration he needs to finish a great work that will ultimately change the world (again, if Shyamalan leaned toward irony, we might be able to see this as something other than self-aggrandizing). Unfortunately, once Cleveland begins to piece together the myth, we start getting barraged with new vocabulary like “narf” (the water people) and “scrunts” (the vicious, spiky canine predators that lie in wait to kill the narfs). Seriously--a “narf”? In all the time Shyamalan spent concocting his tale, did it never occur to him how genuinely ridiculous that sounds?
Near the mid-way point, the narrative begins to strain credulity to the breaking point, as Cleveland learns that he must put together what can only be described as a team of humans harboring unknown powers that will help Story get back to her world. Thus, he must enlist the help of various tenants to fill the roles of “Symbologist,” “Guardian,” “Healer,” and “The Guild.”
My barely repressed desire to see all this as parody is underlined by the presence of a new tenant, Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), who happens to be a snooty, rude film/book critic who at one point explains to Cleveland how he can find the needed members of his team via movie story clichés. In doing this, Shyamalan points a self-consciously comic finger at himself and his own narrative construction, yet still takes seeming pleasure in heaping scorn on Mr. Farber (surely named for the great film critic Manny Farber) and supplying him with an untimely and gruesome off-screen demise that undercuts what the cliché should be. Is this Shyamalan’s way of arguing that he doesn’t work from formula, even though Lady in the Water, for all its incalcitrant weirdness, fits very snugly into his larger body of work, where each film centers around a protagonist slowly coming to the realization that there are larger forces working in his life?
Lady in the Water is clearly aimed at the heart, and it’s not hard to see that Shyamalan made it directly from his own (apparently, it grew out of a bedtime story he wrote for his children, which appears to be an ineffective way to construct a two-hour movie). Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (a favorite of Wong Kar-Wai’s) gives the film a luscious storybook vibe despite the limited setting, but the visuals never cohere as Shyamalan’s storytelling flounders on the rocky shores of misguided audaciousness.
At one point in the film, Cleveland is asked directly if he thinks humankind is worth saving, and he answers immediately with a strong “yes.” It’s a crucial piece of dialogue that is arguably the core of not only this film, but Shyamalan’s body of work as a whole. He is a profoundly humanist director, but also one whose desire to spin great, messianic yarns about redemption have been slowly but surely spinning out of control ever since he impressed himself into pop-culture lore with The Sixth Sense (1998). However, there is one particular line of dialogue from Lady in the Water that, more so than any other, sums it all up: “You have to believe that this all makes sense.” I am afraid that many will end up losing their faith.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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