July 21, 2006
Why the Lady Drowns
It would be easy to glibly dismiss M. Night Shyamalan’s LADY IN THE WATER as an epic trainwreck–and, indeed, it is. So let’s get all of that out of the way: it’s one of the most astonishing, embarrassing, misbegotten misfires from a name brand director in recent memory. While it’s undoubtedly fun to hurl the invective at a work that truly deserves the abuse (and does this film ever ask–nay, beg for it), what is truly striking is that maybe, just maybe, this fantastical tale could have worked on screen. It’s just that Shyamalan makes just about every conceivable wrong move along the way from basic conception to execution.
The basic idea is this: a sea nymph, called a “narf” (Bryce Dallas Howard), arrives in the pool of a Philadelphia apartment building on a mission to inspire a writer who will change the world. With the help of the building’s superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) and just about all the other tenants, the narf–named (flaming, sledgehammer symbolism alert!) “Story”–attempts to find her “vessel” and then return safely to her aquatic home of “The Blue World” without being harmed by the dangerous wolf-like creatures called “scrunts.”
Now, it would be easy to dismiss this basic idea, which reportedly comes from a bedtime story Shyamalan made up on-the-fly for his young daughters, as incredibly silly. But then that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been adapted from the screen effectively, particularly with the originally intended target audience in mind: children. After all, who would be most willing to let the paper-preposterous mythology of narfs and scrunts wash over them at face value? But Shyamalan misses the boat by not only bypassing the kid audience or even the family audience but by aiming this heap of hokum squarely at adults. It’s perhaps a noble intention to try to make an adult audience appreciate and embrace the innocent wonder of a fairy tale, but to do so would require that ever-so-tricky balance known as magic realism–and when the former quality isn’t exactly magical and the latter is hardly convincing, trouble is afoot.
Giamatti deserves special credit for doing his damndest to deliver a real performance here, but his authenticity in bringing to life the anguished, stuttering schlub that is Cleveland works against whatever spell Shyamalan tries to conjure. Cleveland, not unlike Mel Gibson’s character in the director’s 2002 Signs, has withdrawn from most of the world after a tragedy shattered his faith. Why, then, does he instantly buy into Story and her increasingly convoluted Blue World rules and mythology? Even better, why does practically everybody else in the building instantly go with it without question as well? Maybe Shyamalan intended this giant leap to read as a metaphor about how every grown-up is eager and ready to find something greater in which to believe in their mundane existence, but such a theme is clumsily conveyed at best, downright stupid at worst.
It also doesn’t help that the magic of this would-be magic realist world isn’t the slightest bit alluring, which would’ve gone a long way toward explaining why everyone in the building is immediately drawn in. Story, with her perpetually limp locks, zombie-pale skin, equally frozen visage, and droning voice to match is quite simply an incredible drag all around–she’s rather creepy to look at, and the purple prose that’s solemnly whispered out of her mouth is more likely to strike bone-chillng fear than foster exuberant creative inspiration. The feeling she is said to inspire, akin to “pins and needles” as the audience is told, doesn’t exactly sound like a sensation that would lead anyone, much less a Chosen One (more on this doozy a little later), to craft a world- and history-changing magnum opus of art and thought. As if it weren’t already difficult enough to go with the flow, according to Shyamalan’s script the narf mythology derives from a Korean bedtime story–and so the bulk of the heavy, neverending exposition comes via tedious and often downright insulting scenes of a heavily-accented, skanky Korean party girl tenant (Cindy Cheung) translating her non-English-speaking mother’s explanations in rough, rather offensive “Me So Horny”-level pidgin English. The talk of narfs and The Blue World are already difficult to take when delivered straight; how can we possibly take it the slightest bit seriously or have even a twinge of investment when the pertinent information is given by stereotype joke characters? Worse still, just when one thinks they have everything with the narfs and the scrunts straight, then Shyamalan introduces new wrinkles and rules to the mythology; I’m not going to even go into what the “tartutic” and “The Great Eatlon” are, or how the interpretation of cereal box images (!) comes into play. (Actually, I’m still trying to figure out how that one came about myself.) The neverending web of new convolutions–needless ones, no less, as ultimately it’s still simply about trying to send the narf back home–betray what is by stated conception a kid-friendly fairy tale bedtime story. The reality may be that Shyamalan made up his bedtime tale as it went along when he first told it to his kids, but there’s no good reason why a film derived from it should feel like it is.
But no one dare question the story Shyamalan tries to tell and how he chooses to tell it, and that such smug, self-justification finds its way into the very narrative of Lady in the Water is what finally pushes the film from already overstuffed, undercooked mess to a landmark of catastrophic indulgence. The writer whose über-profound musings will go on to inspire future world leaders and form the impetus to large-scale global sociopolitical change is played by none other than the writer-director himself. His character–no less than the third lead behind Giamatti and Howard–may not bear his own name, but he might as well, as there’s no excuse to cast himself in such a large role (after all, talented South Asian actors who would’ve nailed this part with far more expression and empathy, such as a Saif Ali Khan or an Abhishek Bachchan, were just a phone call away) other than to make his statement blatantly clear: M. Night Shyamalan is the Vessel of Story. Doubt that at your peril–lest you meet the same fate as Farber (Bob Balaban), a fussy film and book critic whose ceaselessly cynical ways lead him to being at the wrong place at the wrong time with a scrunt. The character and Balaban’s rather hilarious performance are probably the most amusing aspects of the film, but in the end one realizes that he really doesn’t have much purpose in the grand scheme–other than to be proven “wrong” and pay dearly for it.
Perhaps the saddest part of Lady in the Water is that Shyamalan is definitely a talented filmmaker. Even in some of his heretofore lesser efforts there are moments of technical brilliance; for example, the nailbiting basement/flashlight scene in Signs and a key character’s plot-pivoting stabbing in The Village. If the latter film’s disastrous final third was his leap off of the cliff, then the whole of Lady in the Water signifies his plunge off of the deep end. I would love to see Shyamalan work a writing collaborator who would help hone and enhance his admittedly imaginative ideas while streamlining the indulgences–or better yet, apply his craft and technique to someone else’s screenplay. But then again, what the hell do I know–I’m a lowly scrunt-bait critic deigning to question the very Vessel of Story.
Truth in Titling
Snakes on a Plane isn’t the only summer movie to lay it all out there in plain sight–there is also the motion-capture animated feature MONSTER HOUSE, which is centers a house that is… a monster. After setting up the premise–after the neighborhood grump (Steve Buscemi) passes, young across-the-street neighbor DJ (Mitchel Musso) notices that his now-vacated home has developed a literal hunger for pets and people that dare disturb it–director Gil Kenan lets his imagination run wild with it without (attention Story Vessel Shyamalan!) weaving unwieldy complications. The animation may be more traditionally CG-looking and as life-like (and, hence for some, not as creepy) as producer Robert Zemeckis’s previous motion-capture-animation effort The Polar Express, but the more fanciful look works, particularly in the case of the title object itself, which Kenan and his design team have managed to turn into a believably living and highly menacing creature while still maintaining its distinct house qualities: its tongue is a rug; its uvula is a hanging light fixture, etc. Anyone looking for Pixar-level (that is, pre-Cars) characterization may be disappointed, but when it comes to killer visuals, some witty one-liners, and genuine thrills (some of which may be too intense for the youngest set–the PG rating is rather deserved), Kenan delivers the freaky/funny goods for audiences of all ages.
My Perfectly Okay Ex-Girlfriend
With last year’s Sky High and now MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, it seems the new annual trend is to graft the superhero angle onto a tried-and-true non-action genre. While not as sharp and clever as last summer’s witty take on the high school teen flick, Ivan Reitman’s superpowered variation on the romantic comedy is good for some light amusements, largely due to Uma Thurman’s game performance as Jenny Johnson/G-Girl, whose confident superheroic exterior hides a needy, clingy, hopelessly neurotic secret identity–in whom one Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson, giving good exasperated smirk) takes a soon-to-be-regrettable interest. The effects, costuming, and hero moniker (”G-Girl”? Might as well call her “Narf Girl”) aren’t exactly the most super, but when Reitman, Thurman, Wilson, and writer Don Payne are able to pull off twisting the original 1978 Superman’s iconic “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence into a hilariously paranoid nightmare of emasculation, they are at least getting the most important job done: delivering a breezy timepass entertainment with a little hint of bite.
Swamped by ShadowsWith producing efforts such as Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, Lee Daniels has built his career on not playing it safe, and he continues on that path with his directorial debut, SHADOWBOXER. Filled with bloody violence, graphic sex and nudity, drug use, color- and age-blind couplings, there’s a lot going on in this story of a hitman (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his cancer-stricken partner/lover/mother figure (Helen Mirren), and the mark (Vanessa Ferlito) they end up protecting from the husband (Stephen Dorff) who ordered the hit. But for all the mayhem, plot twists, and taboo-smashing, the film fails to resonate due in large part to Gooding’s opaque central performance as the laconic Mikey; his character is a man of few words by design, but Gooding does nothing beneath the stoicism that would enable the viewer to connect with Mikey’s rather rich emotional arc. Other peformances are more effective, particularly Mirren’s nuanced yet palpably anguished work; and unlike a lot of producers-turned-directors, Daniels has a confident, creative visual style (aided in no small part by cinematographer M. David Mullen). The raw materials for a gutsy, gritty, fearless, fascinating thriller are here, but the end result amounts to some intriguing individual parts and not a satisfying, cohesive whole.
At the Video Store
It’s a shame that Warner Bros. appeared to have no clue how to properly sell Chris Robinson’s ATL (Warner Home Video), as evidenced by their ad campaign and the early media coverage of the film. Early press fixated on roller skating, which is part of the film but hardly the focus; the trailers and TV spots suggested violent urban ghetto flick, but the grit and darker shades are not the main concern. Ultimately, this is one of those teen coming-of-age films, and with the eventful time stretch comes the good and the bad, the light and the dark; and with the different characters come the divergent life directions, be it the legit or the criminal, the modest to the extravagant; and with its setting–Atlanta–all the local flavor specific to life there. It’s not exactly something that can boiled down to an easy sell, but then that’s also part of its appeal and charm. Tip “T.I.” Harris acquits himself well in his big acting debut, and the rest of the eager young ensemble (including Jackie Long, Al Daniels, Evan Ross, and Lauren London) deliver. The DVD includes deleted scenes, a T.I. music video, and a “Director’s Journey” documentary.
SHE’S THE MAN (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) could easily be dismissed as another light teen comedy, and worse yet one of those Shakespeare-”inspired” teen comedies (here, Twelfth Night), but it works far better than it has any right to be, thanks to that comic dynamo Amanda Bynes, here playing a girl who goes undercover as her brother to play soccer at his boarding school (yes, it’s a stretch). Attractive in a real girl way (read: she actually eats!), and more than game to go the extra mile for a laugh, she fills a zany niche not occupied by any of her young actress brethren, and I look forward to see her further work on the big screen now that her sitcom has ended its run. The DVD includes commentary by Bynes, director Andy Fickman, and other cast and crew members; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and a making-of featurette.
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