Lady in the Water
out of ****
Only a filmmaker as brilliant and talented as M Night Shyamalan could fail on such a colossally visionary level as he does with Lady in the Water. To watch it is to never doubt his skills as a masterful craftsman but to rather see craftsmanship spinning wildly and aggressively out of control. After five successful films ranging from good to spectacular, Shyamalan’s fall was inevitable, but it is difficult to watch the descent of an imagination swelled to such proportion that it pops and deflates. This is the Zardoz of our time.
Like other great visions of cinema (failed or otherwise), Lady in the Water is ambitious and saturated in imagination. Shyamalan’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is the ability to invent supernatural environments and ground them firmly in our reality, bridging the gap between fantasy worlds and our world. Early scenes in the film depict a sad doctor-turned-apartment-caretaker (Paul Giamatti) watching footage of international news, and these sequences serve as a reminder of the harsh reality that we live in. It is a world in need of the hope that exists in fairy tales, with their happy endings and beliefs that all people are universally good. As the early scenes progress, we go down the checklist of Shyamalan’s familiar motifs: A quiet, introverted protagonist, a generally sad tone, themes of loss and death that keep the characters emotionally distant from each other, and a subsequent supernatural event that forces them to come to terms with their traumatic loss. These themes worked wonders with Shyamalan in all of his previous films; recognizing them again here, we settle in and wait for them to move us once more.
But if we need fairy tales in this day and age to give us hope for a brighter future, it probably helps to tell one that makes a lick of sense. As the film progresses from its earliest scenes, we quickly become aware that the plot is getting out of control. It involves a creature (Bryce Dallas Howard) called a narf (yes, a narf) who lives in the apartment complex’s swimming pool. She has come from another dimension to deliver a vague message to M Night Shyamalan (yes, literally M Night Shyamalan), who basically plays himself in a major role as a messianic author who is going to one day write a book that will Change the World. But the narf’s mission will not be so easy: She is also under attack from various creatures, including some sort of werewolf made out of fungus called a scrunt (yes, a scrunt) that wants to eat her for no apparent reason, except it’s an evil fairy tale creature. There’s also a gigantic, eagle-like beast who is supposed to come and take the narf back to her home, called the Blue World, once she has delivered her message, after which the narf will go home and become queen of her people.
If I’m phrasing all this in a way that makes it sound coherent, that doesn’t mean you should expect coherency to while you are watching the film—or at least, don’t expect any coherency applied to a narrative approach that allows any of it to be attainable. Lady in the Water’s origins are in a bedtime story that Shyamalan told his children; perhaps this is why the films plays as if it is being made up on the spot, with Shyamalan throwing in as many ridiculous creatures and plot twists on seemingly only a whim. In the meantime, crucial, character-defining details are brushed aside for the sake of the fantasy elements: We find out that Giamatti’s family was murdered, but this subplot is never firmly established before he is expected to confront it. Shyamalan spends more time with the scrunts than with Giamatti’s haunted past, as if he expects us to simply know that because this is an M Night Shyamalan film, his characters are going to be depressed all the time. The problem is, Giamatti is far more compelling than a scrunt, and we miss the rich character development of Shyamalan’s previous films.
It is necessary to park on the film’s origins for a moment; that it began as a bedtime story for his children is probably how the film will maintain a small but loyal fanbase. I suspect that those who defend Lady in the Water will indeed do so on the grounds that it is a fairy tale; they will emphasize, as Shyamalan did, that its viewer must get into the correct mood for it—you have to accept it on its own terms, as a child accepts the fantasy worlds of the Brothers Grimm and the Arabian Nights. Fair enough, but children aren't stupid—they know when they’re being had, and they rise to the occasion. How many kids do you know who could sit through a story as jumbled as this without asking, "Why...?" every ten seconds? Shyamalan must have encountered the same problem when telling his children this story, so he kept inventing the answers as he went along, with plot developments constantly piling on top of themselves faster than he could maintain them. The greatest bedtime stories are simple, interesting, and imaginative (Wizard of Oz, E.T., Mary Poppins, Spirited Away). Shyamalan should have scaled down the story from its bedside origins before approaching its film adaptation.
By the movie’s conclusion, which literally ends with mohawked, man-eating monkeys living in the nearby woods coming out of nowhere to save the day, we get the impression that Shyamalan didn’t know how to tie up all these loose threads into order to satisfactorily conclude the film. He simply slams it to a halt, probably in the same way that he did when he told it to his children (“Okay, the story’s over. Now shut up and go to sleep.”). I’m reminded of the ending of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” in which the Blatant Beast finally eats the whole book, bringing the last line to a glorious, messy finish. That great, epic poem was also too big for its britches, but at least Spenser is humble enough to admit it and ends on a jovially over-the-top note that playfully celebrates the failure of his ambitious vision (or, perhaps better put, the vision of his ambitious failure).
Unlike Spenser, Shyamalan never seems to realize the tremendous mess his story is in. In fact, Shyamalan gives all indication that he thinks the proceedings are going well. He provides a young Korean tenant (Cindy Cheung) whose only purpose in the film is to explain the motivations of these legendary creatures to the viewer. Evidently, narfs, scrunts, et al are from Korean myths, despite their very non-Korean names (narf? Sounds more Pinky and the Brain to me; the truth, of course, is that Shyamalan made them all up for the film). Cheung’s rationales for the random appearances of scrunts, narfs, and mohawked monkeys are supposed to provide clarity in regards to their significance in the story; yet when Shyamalan, who is above all else a great visual director, has to leave it up unintelligible narration to keep us informed of the complicated plot, it becomes clear that he never had a visual strategy for the film in the first place. I estimate that Cheung’s explanations make up about half of the picture, and this is beyond problematic: Every time she stops to explain things, she grinds the film to a halt and forces us play catch-up to the confusing scenes that never make sense until after she explains them—and at this point, we have ceased to care.
It would have helped if the fantastical elements sandwiched between the narrations weren’t utterly bizarre and ridiculous. A case could be made that the point of a fairy tale is that it flirts with the bizarre and the ridiculous, but the best of fairy tales are careful to establish their ideas in a way that makes them compatible. We can accept seven dwarfs or a flying carpet if the narrative engages us enough to earn them. However, when a narf rises from a swimming pool and begins to explain the Blue World, the hungry scrunts, etc., without first convincing us to suspend our disbelief, the scenes are laughable, not inspiring. Shyamalan participating in the role of a modern day Jesus doesn’t help either. He’s certainly not a bad actor, but assuming that your nonsensical story is going so well that you can feel confident enough to cast yourself in its most important part is a very sloppy move. If you’re going position yourself as the messiah, make sure you’ve convinced us that you’re the right man for the job; Shyamalan surrounds his role with a film that fails so miserably that his casting comes across as an act of inflated ego, not earnest vision. In this case, the Blatant Beast does not eat his book; it only eats him.
I’ve said that this film is brilliant in its badness, and it is. Shyamalan gets marks for being ambitious, and if his images are laughable, they are not boring. His visual style is strong, but it is wildly inconsistent, depending upon a full range of moods that shift from scene to scene in helpless abandon. He cannot expect us to laugh at a scrunt in one moment and then feel terror for it in the next when we’re not even sure what it is about a scrunt that we’re supposed to find either funny or scary. The final act is so dreadfully serious that it asks us to believe that monkeys can have mohawks and still somehow not inspire our giggles, and there is something utterly stupendous in the way that Shyamalan moves forward as if all of these ideas are flowing. Scene after scene creates unique images that fail to do anything but look absurd, and it takes a special kind of kind of genius to inadvertently invent so many of these moments while making it look easy. My personal favorite: A dozen people surrounding a dying narf, all warmly touching her in an attempt to generate karma that will heal her wounds. The whole scenario looks like a religious healing service that you’d see on TBN, complete with the cheesy music and the synthetic tears, and surely this is not the tone that Shyamalan was trying to create. Still, it’s a great disaster to behold.
The actors don’t help, but it’s not their faults. Giamatti in particular has moments of poignancy as the man who develops the strongest connection with the narf, but his performance is fickle because Shyamalan is never able to develop a clear direction for his character to take. Giamatti is wide-eyed and goofy in one scene, and then he’s depressed and deadly serious in the next; all of these scenes viewed apart feature a strong actor, but they never come together to form a convincing personality. As the narf, Howard tries to channel the otherworldliness of E.T., but her dialogue is so stilted and Shyamalan’s script is so unfocused that she only comes across as dull and uninteresting. The rest of the actors seem generally confused by the story, and often look like they are trying to keep a straight face. There is one scene in which a little boy interprets future events with cereal boxes (yes, cereal boxes), and I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall while this sequence was being filmed, just to hear what the actors said to each other between takes when Shyamalan wasn’t listening (“I predict that they’ll never get me Lucky Charms!”).
Before it was released, Lady in the Water was already notorious as the film that severed the relationship between Shyamalan and Disney. Of course, it was Shyamalan who pulled the plug: While Disney voiced strong misgivings about the film, they were still willing to give Shyamalan $60 million to shoot it the way he wanted, simply because he had consistently turned a high profit for them in the past. That’s the sort of deal even the most prestigious directors only dream of, but Shyamalan, after the critical and commercial mega-hits that were his previous movies, didn’t take kindly to the criticism and walked away from the studio. He ended up taking Lady in the Water to Warner Brothers and proving Disney’s misgivings correct. He should have realized that just because somebody doesn’t like your work doesn’t mean that they don’t like you personally.
But no, it’s clear that he believes in the importance of Lady in the Water, and its self-indulgence also makes it clear that after seeing himself as untouchable, his ego got the better of his filmmaking capabilities. He seems to think that he is inventing a modern day mythos with Lady, and maybe he’s right—this is certainly the kind of film that will generate a devoted cult following for those who accept its absurdities while analyzing every scene in careful detail in order to pick up on all his subtleties. I’m sure such subtleties are there, but I’m not convinced that they add up to anything. Shyamalan has not reinvented the fairy tale, but has rather contributed to the great pool of over-zealous filmmakers lost in their own creative vision. Such vision has brought us towering cinematic achievements like Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey; unfortunately, they’ve also brought us debacles like Heaven’s Gate and Exorcist 2. I hope Shyamalan will take a look at what went terribly wrong with Lady and rethink his approach. We need more Kubricks, after all; not more Ciminos.
During the press for this film, Shyamalan inappropriately lashed out at film critics for being inconsistent in the way they praised Signs (his best film), which he practically dismissed as mindless drivel, and flogging his other work with scorn and anger. Personally, I believe it is he who is inconsistent, since before Lady’s release, only The Village received mixed reviews. All his other films got splendid notices, did fine at the box office, and/or were nominated for awards, and even The Village broke financial records and recieved an Oscar nomination (for best soundtrack). I personally praised them all, and I still think he’s one of the most interesting American directors working today. Nevertheless, Shyamalan said on his NPR interview, "They like my popcorn film [Signs], but they get upset when I try to make a film that has a message." Paradoxically, Signs has a GREAT message (looking for meaning and purpose in all subtle banalities of life), but I can't for the life of me figure out what message (if any) Lady in the Water is supposed to have.
What’s particularly extraordinary about Shyamalan’s scathing attack on film critics is the casting of Bob Balaban as a snooty critic who I suppose is meant to represent every editorialist who didn’t like The Village. Balaban’s character is such an unpleasant bore that we cannot take him seriously. I don’t think we’re supposed to, though; his role is clearly just a caricature that symbolizes Shyamalan’s open challenge to us critics who would dare write a bad review of any of his films. It’s almost as if the director is trying to one-up us: If we don’t like Lady in the Water, we’re all like Balaban—presumptuous, rude, and unable to grasp the depths of Shyamalan’s vision. If we do like it, we concede to Shyamalan’s interpretation of critics and admit the worthlessness of our profession. Either way we lose. It’s a brilliantly egotistical move on Shyamalan’s part, yet the nagging question remains: Why isn’t he confident enough in his own filmmaking skills to allow them to speak for themselves, instead of developing a subplot specifically meant to jab at his detractors? This is an extremely low blow, and it only represents his own insecurities as an artist. If you feel like film critics are unfairly mocking you, M Night, why sink to their level?
“Do they have a problem with me if I want to make a film that has an important point?” he asked on NPR. A message of hope in such a dark time as this? Of course we don’t mind, M Night. Of course we don’t mind. But for God’s sake, tell it well.
Paul Giamatti: Cleveland Heep
Bryce Dallas Howard: Story
M Night Shyamalan: Vick Ran
Jeffery Wright: Mr. Dury
Cindy Cheung: Young-Soon Choi
Bob Balaban: Henry Farber
Warner Brothers presents a Legendary Pictures production. Written and directed by M Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13 for some frightening sequences. Running time: 110 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: July 21, 2006.