Lady In The Water Review
M Night Shyamalan doesn't appear to like movie critics much. One of the characters in his new film, Lady In The Water is a movie critic and oh boy, does the movie not like him! Mr Farber (Bob Balaban) is depicted as a cynical, humourless nerd who's disliked by everyone who meets him - more so than he deserves. At one point, he's asked to use his knowledge of plot construction to work out to which of his neighbours a prophecy might be referring. When his advice proves unhelpful, a character asks, "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume to know the intentions of another human being?" Why, the answer is obvious: a movie critic. Without becoming too specific, Mr Farber's ultimate fate is the least pleasant of anyone's in the movie.
Is Shyamalan taking revenge for what critics said about his previous film, The Village or, I wonder, is the character a defence mechanism to explain away potential bad reviews of Lady In The Water? "Of course the critics don't like it", Shyamalan can say, "Look how I've portrayed them in it." This particular critic didn't much like Lady In The Water but I promise you, it wasn't because I was offended by the petty treatment of Mr Farber. I disliked it because it's a misconceived, contrived and convoluted film that tried to stimulate my sense of wonder and failed. It's the first Shyamalan movie that didn't work for me (I quite liked The Village). There are things about it I admired - scenes, lines, performances - but I can't defend it as a whole.
Billed as a bedtime story, Lady In The Water is about a "narf", a sea nymph who has come to our world to bring us an important message about the future of humanity. The narf's name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) and she's discovered in the swimming pool of a low-rent Philadelphia apartment complex by the shy, stuttering caretaker, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Realising quickly that Story is not one of us, Cleveland takes her in and promises to help her complete her mission and protect her from the monster that's stalking her: a "scrunt", a foul beast that lives to kill narfs.
Sound like a nice, simple idea. It isn't. The narf comes with a mythology that's so complicated, the characters spend most of the movie trying to get their heads around it. The apartment complex just happens to contain a Korean immigrant who knows everything about narfs (she remembers stories about them told by her grandmother) but the information she passes on is often vague and there's endless debate about the exact meanings of what she says. I don't think I've ever seen a film that contained more exposition than this one.
The tone of the movie, something M Night Shyamalan usually gets dead right, is all over the place. It swerves back and forth, unsatisfyingly, between the spiritualistic gravity of Shyamalan's previous work and a ham-fisted attempt at Tim Burton-style whimsy. The spiritual stuff works to an extent but not nearly as well as it did in Signs and The Sixth Sense. It isn't sufficiently developed here. Our narf heroine has brought us important ideas that will one day save humanity. TV news footage of an unspecified war raging somewhere hints that we're in dire need of being saved. But what are these ideas? We're never told.
I was reminded of Gus van Sant's Finding Forrester, which was about a young man with a gift for writing. We were told he could write Pulitzer prize-worthy prose, but we were never allowed to hear his words (as he made his climactic speech, the music swelled and drowned him out). Why? I suspect it was to spare the screenwriters from having to deliver prose that sounded like it might conceivably win a Pulitzer. Likewise, I wonder if Lady In The Water keeps its great ideas a secret because otherwise it would have to come up with something a bit more useful than "stop having wars all the time".
The whimsical stuff, by which I mean the mythology of the narf, with its eagles and scrunts and police monkeys (don't ask) is just daft. The scrunt in particular is impossible to take seriously. It looks like a cross between a wolf and a warthog and it's not scary in the slightest. The characters spend a great deal of the movie working out how to get Story past this fearsome creature and back to her world and what I want to know is, why does no one just shoot the damn thing? This is America. Doesn't someone have a gun? Maybe scrunts can't be shot - I don't know - but couldn't someone at least have tried busting a cap in its ass?
The good things about Lady In The Water: there are some very nice individual scenes. The material involving the Korean mother and daughter and the Indian brother and sister is especially good. The music, by regular Shyamalan collaborator James Newton Howard, adds a lot to the movie. Paul Giamatti, working from a well-drawn character, gives another sublime performance. There's also memorably funny work from Cindy Cheung, June Kyoto Lu, Sarita Choudhury and M Night Shyamalan himself as the respective Korean and Indian residents.
Some fine character actors are wasted however, including Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin and Jared Harris. Bryce Dallas Howard, who made such an impression in The Village, isn't able to do much with Story. She spends almost every moment onscreen looking anxious and fearful. Okay, she's a timid creature, we get it, but couldn't she have been allowed a few scenes where she displays a personality or at least smiles? As it is, we never get to know her, like her or care all that much if a scrunt gets her.