I hardly know where to begin. Lady in the Water - the new film from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan – is one of the weirdest, most inept movies I have ever seen. So many thoughts are running through my head right now that I’m not sure how I am going to organize them all into a review. I will give Shyamalan some credit: he tried to do something different than his other films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Despite how the advertising looks, this is not a supernatural thriller. There is also no trick ending anywhere in sight. Whether or not everything else is a trick remains unclear.
Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heep, the superintendent of a Philadelphia apartment complex. He thinks someone has been using the pool after hours and tries to catch the culprit. In the process, he falls in and is rescued by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a sea nymph (or “Narf”). She arrives from a place called “The Blue World” via hidden tunnels beneath the pool. It’s not entirely clear why Story arrives in Philly, but she almost immediately wants to go back home. Unfortunately, there are “Scrunts” (wolf-like creatures made of grass who emerge from the ground) waiting to destroy her. Story’s only protection from the Scrunts are the Tartutics, monkey-like creatures who live in trees and, according to the press kit, “maintain law and order in The Blue World.” To get home, the Great Eatlon (basically a giant eagle) must be summoned to come carry her away.
If you’re scratching your head and wondering what the @#$% I’m talking about right now…well, don’t kill the messenger. Shyamalan wrote it.
One of the tenants in the building is a young Korean woman whose mother knows the fable of the Blue World. She says that there are helpers – a protector, a healer, and a guild among them – who can assist a Narf. These helpers are generally humans who do not know that they have been assigned these roles. Heep realizes that he and some other tenants are probably the ones meant to fulfill them. He recruits a crossword puzzle expert (Jeffrey Wright), a political author (Shyamalan), and a bunch of stoners to help Story get carried away by the Eatlon. Some of his guesses are wrong, so more time is spent trying to figure out who should perform each job.
There are many, many problems with Lady in the Water, but one of them is that this set-up is so clunky that it never gels into anything even remotely compelling. Shyamalan based the screenplay on a fairy tale he made up for his daughters, and the film overindulges itself in telling us the legend of the Narfs. Consequently, the film never develops Story into a character we can care about. She gazes ethereally at the others, mutters an occasional line of dialogue, and that’s about it. Same goes for the other characters. There are a lot of people walking around trying to figure out who the protector is and who the healer is, but there are no scenes in which they seem to be anything other than part of a template for a bad fairy tale. It’s as though you are watching a film in which someone reads a bedtime story. You might wonder why you were watching someone read a story when the movie could have been actually depicting the story.
That flaw alone would be enough to make Lady in the Water a bad movie. But this is more than a bad movie. This is a film that deserves to stand alongside Battlefield Earth, Showgirls, and Ishtar on a list of big-budget Hollywood movies that are spectacularly awful. Have you ever been approached by someone who was really drunk and/or stoned, and they earnestly tell you some long, rambling, incoherent story that seems to go on forever despite being completely substance-free? Well, that’s what watching Lady in the Water is like.
The film has one bizarre, outlandish moment after another. Consider the scene in which Story sits in a shower while all the other tenants stare at her as they try to find hidden messages in a crossword puzzle. Or the scene where another character gets clues for helping Story by inexplicably reading the sides of cereal boxes. Or the scene where Heep swims down the tunnel under the pool drain and finds that Story has hidden a lot of drinking glasses and keys there.
These scenes bring up a lot of unanswered questions, and here are some more: Why does the attempt to get Story home require that the tenants throw a massive pool party? Why do you have to walk backward when approaching a Scrunt? If the Scrunts are in the grass, why can’t Story just run along the concrete and jump back into the pool? Here’s a big question: What’s up with the guy who works out only the right side of his body? His appearance at a critical dramatic moment draws unintentional laughter because he looks so damned ridiculous. Actually, there was a lot of unintentional laugher here. It was only three days ago that I saw Kevin Smith’s Clerks II. I’m still trying to figure out which movie made me laugh harder, and this one is not a comedy.
None of this stuff is explained satisfactorily. It feels like Shyamalan pulled a bunch of stray ideas out of a hat, then strung them together without regard for logic. The most out-of-left-field element of all involves one of the tenants - a film critic (Bob Balaban) who complains about certain movie clichés, all of which Lady in the Water proceeds to follow. He gripes that movie characters always stand in the rain and talk; the finale then has people standing in the rain talking. Later, he comes face to face with a Scrunt and, instead of running, he gives a play-by-play account of what a movie character would do in such a situation. Of course, he also grouses about movie characters who spend too much time yammering about nothing, which would account for everyone in this film. Is Shyamalan trying to be funny here? Is he not-so-subtly attacking the critics who lambasted his last picture, The Village? Or has he just completely lost touch with his own talents?
Lady in the Water is a complete and unmitigated disaster. It does not feel like the work of the same director who gave us such brilliantly controlled chillers like The Sixth Sense or Signs. Instead, it feels like a film that Ed Wood or Uwe Boll would have made. I would say that there are no words to describe the badness that is Lady in the Water but that is not true. The words preposterous, moronic, ludicrous, inane, pointless, and incompetent all apply nicely.
(1/2 star out of four)
Note: This review was harsh, and for good reason. But I do want to go on record as saying that I like M. Night Shyamalan and hope this was just a temporary case of really bad judgment. I look forward to better films from him in the future.
Lady in the Water is rated PG-13 for some frightening sequences. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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