Lady in the WaterReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/21/06 01:07:46
Somewhere in the middle of “Lady in the Water,” M. Night Shyamalan asks us to thrill to a modern day fairy tale about Narfs and Scrunts. Not coincidentally, that’s right around the same time we as a collective public tell M. Night Shyamalan to go screw himself.The anti-M. Night feelings have been gradually snowballing over the past few years, and for good reason: the guy can’t make a decent movie to save his life. His films are bloated, rambling, laughable exercises in ego and pretension. His “The Village” was the breaking point for many, the film that finally got plenty of folks laughing at his oh-look-how-clever-I-am seriousness instead of wowing to it.
His knee-jerk reaction to that film’s failure, apparently, seems to be his making a movie so pointless, so inaccessible, so completely inadvertently hilarious (yet so unbearably unfunny during all the “comedy” parts) that it just might ruin whatever reputation he had remaining. Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourself for “Lady in the Water.”
A Narf, writer/director/producer/actor/credit card pitchman Shyamalan tells us, is something along the lines of a mermaid with legs. If that, even - they’re apparently just people who swim a lot. Narfs live in “the Blue World,” and they sneak out through our swimming pools (chlorine does nothing to deter a Narf) on a mission to find specific humans - a job that pretty much entails just staring at them for a few seconds, which is a fairly easy mission, all things considered. A Narf’s nemesis is a Scrunt, sort of a dog-creature made of grass whose name has everyone in the audience doing a spit-take, tilting their heads to one side, and asking, “Um, it’s called a what now?”
When a Narf named Story is discovered in the pool of an apartment complex managed by a stuttering ex-doctor named Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), it’s up to Cleveland to uncover the myths of the Narfs and Scrunts in time for Story to complete her mission and go home in the arms of a giant eagle that only comes twice during a Narf’s trip to the surface world. Naturally, Cleveland enlists the aid of an old Chinese woman with a knack for storytelling, because when you hear the words “Narf” and “Scrunt,” you automatically think of ancient Asian mythology. Using the old woman’s bedtime stories as a guide, Cleveland begins gathering up apartment residents to help fight off the Scrunt and send Story back to the Blue World.
I swear to God, I just want to punch this movie right in the face.
First off, it’s just lazy - “Cleveland Heep” is a character name that screams “oh boy howdy gee, get ready, this movie’s going to be quirky as all get out, because we got ourselves a main character goes by the name of Cleveland Heep, of all things, and don’t that just beat all!” Cleveland Heep also stutters, which is a tic given to a character when writers cannot think of any other way of making him interesting; it’s a storytelling cop-out, plain and simple. As for Cleveland Heep’s past - he used to be a doctor and is hiding out as a handyman in an attempt to forget a major tragedy in his life - it’s so undercooked it could give you worms. Shyamalan wants to give his lead character depth and pathos, but he just doesn’t do anything with what he gives us. He merely tells us in one scene that something bad happened, tosses in a reminder late in the movie (in a failed attempt at emotional heft), and calls it a day. He doesn’t want to do the work to get us to care for this Cleveland Heep fellow, so he half-asses it, and we’re left with a movie that consistently wastes the talents of an exceptional actor who’s stuck filling in too many gaps from a poorly designed screenplay.
Then again, that’s better than Shyamalan himself, who gets promoted from playing bit parts in his earlier movies to playing a major character here. If you’re a director who’s looking to cast himself as what is, essentially, the third lead, you should be sure that you can either act the hell out of anything you can write, or, barring that, have a screen presence so appealing that we can overlook your flaws. Scorsese and Tarantino aren’t terrific actors, but they’re terrific personalities, and the small roles they fill from time to time work because they’re simply fun to watch. Shyamalan, meanwhile, has all the charisma of a wet sock. He’s not particularly awful, but he’s overwhelmingly bland, one-noting his way through a role that demands more weight that what he can possibly provide.
(Of course, it doesn’t help his reputation as a rampant egotist to cast himself in the role of a man who learns he is destined to change the entire world through his writings. Tone it down, there, dumbass.)
Another character, the one that’s bound to get the most attention, is that of a movie critic (Bob Balaban) who’s so uppity, pompous, and obnoxious that one wonders if Shyamalan has started taking lessons in petty whining from Rob Schneider and Nick Swardson. Is this the filmmaker’s gut reaction to people not liking his last movie? Writing in a useless character that makes fun of movie critics? Is this Shyamalan really this much of a cry-baby?
What’s curious about the critic character, as my colleague William Goss pointed out recently during a few wow-this-movie-blows conversations, is just how much the joke fails. Here we have a parody of film critic arrogance - this is the only non-likeable character in the entire film, aggressively so; a person curt and rude who looks down on his fellow residents; a person who spends his entire time announcing his expertise in understanding storytelling and lamenting the lack of creativity in the modern world - that goes so very embarrassingly broad that the joke doesn’t just fail, it bellyflops. Especially late in the film, a scene to which the character has been building and building and building: the critic is confronted by a Scrunt, and he immediately begins talking to it, saying this is just like a horror movie, explaining why he must survive, considering the rules of horror clichés; even discounting the scene’s obvious rip-off of a similar moment in “Scream,” the joke bumbles with every breath. This sad display of almost-comedy is the best Shyamalan could do?
Interestingly enough, the critic exists merely to point out just how ordinary and predictable Shyamalan’s story is. The joke, apparently, is that Shyamalan is beating us critics to the punch. In one scene, Cleveland Heep asks the critic for help in interpreting the bedtime story in relation to the residents of the apartment complex; the critic replies that Cleveland Heep must look for people of seemingly secondary importance who have been introduced earlier. We of course then flash to the crossword wiz and the roomful of potheads whom we met in a few throwaway scenes, and the joke is, sadly: “Look! I’m following generic story conventions, but I’m telling you I’m following generic storytelling conventions, and isn’t that brilliant of me!” No, not really. In fact, Shyamalan is effectively making fun of himself by having the critic make fun of such simplicities.
Also take note: Although there is no twist ending in this Shyamalan effort - an evident attempt to remove himself from the pressures of being “Mr. Twist Ending” that led to such failures in his post-“Sixth Sense” works - there are a few “gotchas,” mainly in the “oh, we got something wrong and now we have to do it all over again, only the right way” category. What this does to the film, essentially, is take a three-minute story and stretch it out to a full 98 minutes. “Lady in the Water” is a colossal example of needless exposition. Shyamalan’s trying to build up mood, but he’s actually only boring us to tears. As there’s absolutely nothing to the story in the first place - again, despite a prologue that tells us how Narfs have this Very Special Mission that involves finding and telling important truths to humans, the actual Very Special Mission is nothing more than a ten-second staring contest, followed by some empty blabbering by M. Night himself later on - any monotony added to the film only inspires shouts of “Get on with it!” from the Peanut Gallery.
(Oddly enough, for all its slow going and doublebacking, there’s absolutely nothing here for our title character to do. She simply sits around - literally - for almost the entire picture. She’s crowded out by side characters and general plot blathering. Huh.)
It should also be mentioned that with this film, Shyamalan tries to engage in plenty of comedy - not just involving the critic. We get running gags involving the old Chinese woman (she’s hilarious because she’s Chinese! or something), Shyamalan’s character’s nagging sister, a kid who finds hidden meanings in Cap’n Crunch boxes, and, in what amounts to a distressing failed joke of mind-numbing proportions, a weirdo body builder, played by Freddy Rodriguez, who only works out the right half of his body. The joke, you see, is that here’s this guy who has one arm and one leg really, really bulked out, while the other arm and leg are normal. When you’re finished screaming at the screen with fits of “What the hell?!?!,” I’ll inform you that this is all there is to the gag. We see him many, many times, and each time, we’re asked to howl with glee at the idea of this half-man, half-hulk. His inclusion into a vital scene late in the film is a mass of confusion, played both for chuckles and thrills, failing at both. The only logical explanation I can imagine is that Shyamalan wanted to include something dumber than Narfs and Scrunts. He succeeded.It has been said that “Lady in the Water” was based on a bedtime story Shyamalan made up for his children. By this account, it is safe to assume that Shyamalan hates his children. This is a dreadful story, a disastrous fairy tale where nothing happens, and when it does, it happens in all the wrong ways. It is an achievement of monumental stupidity, obnoxious self-importance, and shallow non-thrills (which is to say, it’s an M. Night Shyamalan film). It is a movie about Narfs and Scrunts, two words destined to become synonymous with cinematic catastrophe.
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