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Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 07.27.06


Water Torture

A bedtime story from M. Night Shyamalan.


LADY IN THE WATER: Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematography, Christopher Doyle. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt and M. Night Shyamalan. Warner Bros., 2006. PG-13. 110 minutes.

Once upon a time, a man made a movie called The Sixth Sense (1999). The movie, a brooding but gently told ghost story, used a simple plot twist to such great effect that repeated viewings were not unusual. This made Hollywood very happy. The movie earned more money that year than any film except Star Wars: Episode I. As a reward, Hollywood gave the man "above title" promotion, effectively turning his name into a brand. The man, M. Night Shyamalan, was 29 years old. Most critics say he was never seen again.

Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) stares, narf-like, into her vinyl reflection.

The problem was, Shyamalan's signature move — a clever twist ending that shatters your perceptions of the story — began to feel like O. Henry without heart. His tendency to suddenly overturn his plots was particularly devastating to Signs (2002), an uneven aliens-in-the-cornfield picture. Signs was a small step forward for Shyamalan; I'll never look at baby monitors the same way again. But the tightly localized focus of the film — we're confined to a farm during a global invasion — is destroyed when the Muppet-looking alien shows up.

Lady in the Water represents a departure for Shyamalan, with themes more mythical than supernatural. Based on a bedtime story Shyamalan tells his children, the film wants to be a straightforward mermaid story, but nothing about Shyamalan (or mermaids) is straightforward. From the confusing voice-over that opens the movie to the out-of-the-sky appearance of creatures near the end, the film lacks rhythm, logic and emotion. Everything about it has a certain spoiled odor. When a movie compares unfavorably to Splash (1984), something is terribly, unequivocally wrong with that movie.

Lady in the Water is the story of a "narf" named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who appears in the pool of an apartment complex managed by the recluse Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Story has crossed over from the "blue world" to find a "vessel" who, upon seeing her, will write something important. No, not the lyrics for the next Enya album. Instead, the vessel will write a book about saving humanity. Although Heep manages to find the vessel, getting Story home will be anything but easy. A wolf-like creature prowls the poolside at night, determined to prevent Story from reaching her fellow narfettes.

The movie makes frequent reference to the laws and rules of a watery Eden, rules that must be followed if Story is to wade home in one piece. But Shyamalan has forgotten that simplicity, not complexity, is the mainstay of any great children's story. So much time is wasted on narf mythology that basic storylines are completely ignored. What motivates the wolf? Why must an eagle finally rescue Story, not a dolphin or a seal? Why does her hair turn from red to blonde late in the movie — has she been bleaching it on the sly? These are questions that must have answers.

Shyamalan appears in every film he makes, a trend which worsens in Lady in the Water. He actually gives himself a starring role. While Shyamalan's acting doesn't wreck the movie — it needs no help in that area — he's dangerously close to overexposure at this point. It's hard to resist the prevailing notion that narcissism will keep him from ever making a truly great movie.

Having said that, some first-rate actors appear here. Most critical to the film is the fine Paul Giamatti (Sideways), who underplays Heep to mysterious perfection until Story finds his secret journal, at which point the movie pulls the rug out from under him. Later, in the longest underwater breathholding scene ever filmed, I thought I saw fatigue creep into Giamatti's eyes. Then again, it might have been the chlorine. Either way, Lady in the Water is uncomfortable to watch.