Having been burned in 2002 by the smoke and mirrors of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs — a film I gave a high rating, then thought about for a week and wondered if I could plead temporary insanity — I am very reluctant to lavish praise on his Lady in the Water. Will I hate myself in the morning? Possibly, but I don’t think so.
It’s not that I think I’m suddenly beyond being momentarily dazzled by a shiny object, but after Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), my approach to anything bearing his imprint is bound to be cautious, pessimistic and drenched in gloomy foreboding. So I went in expecting the worst. I kept thinking the film would soon start to bore or annoy me … and it never did. It had moments that left me vaguely troubled, and it had things that didn’t work, but even when Lady in the Water faltered, I never found it less than fascinating. Even its flaws and missteps carried their own fascination.
So many of the negative reviews the film has garnered — and it’s garnered a lot of them — focus on Shyamalan’s self-indulgence. Of all the meaningless critical buzzwords out there “self-indulgent” ought to be at the top of the list. (Come the revolution, it’s going up against the wall first.) By its very nature, art is self-indulgent. The mere act of creating something is indulging yourself, your ideas, your beliefs, your fantasies. OK, that hardly applies if you’re out there making Cheaper by the Dozen 2, but that’s hackwork. Whatever Shyamalan is or isn’t, he is certainly not a hack. Hacks don’t make movies this screwy.
I haven’t liked most of Shyamalan’s work, but I’d never deny him artist status, nor would I question his sincerity or lack of cynicism. As such, he has the right — and possibly the obligation — to be self-indulgent. It is from this that works of art attain their identity — both for good and bad. There’s much that’s good here — and a fair portion that is at least misguided. I can sympathize with the suits at Disney who wanted a rewrite, but I honestly think I’d rather have the flawed, humanistic, wide-eyed, noncynical film that emerged than the slicker product they envisioned.
If you don’t know, the film is a fairy tale — a modern-day one grounded in a bogus mythology — that began life as a bedtime story Shyamalan made up for his children. As filmed, he has managed to keep the sense of a fairy tale — something that has nettled the movie’s detractors by virtue of the story’s preference for casual magic over realism.
The story focuses on Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti in a performance that actually justifies his reputation), a former doctor, who is eaten up with guilt over the fact that he wasn’t present when his family was murdered. The resulting trauma has left him dazed and damaged and reduced to working as a super at an apartment complex (one that is apt to remind you of Hitchcock’s Rear Window). It is there — in the facility’s pool — that he finds the titular lady, Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who claims she’s a “narf” — a kind of mermaid-like creature from the “Blue World.” She’s there on a mission — a mission to awaken something in a particular person that will allow that person to do something that will make a difference to the world. Evil forces — in the form of creatures called “scrunts” — will try to prevent this, and will also try to prevent her from returning to her own world.
When the story works — and for me at least, it worked more than it didn’t — it does so on several levels, levels that deal with the redemption of Heep in his own eyes, with the power of myth and with the possibility of human connection. Sometimes Shyamalan does go too far in his fairy-tale world. There’s a scene with Heep underwater that is frankly preposterous.
Shyamalan has also included a movie critic named Farber (Bob Balaban), who seems to serve a valid purpose for a time, only to turn out to be a silly revenge joke on the director’s detractors. And the character carries a built-in slap at this film’s detractors by posing the question of how anyone could dare to presume to know what someone else is thinking. That works on one level, since Shyamalan offers no clue as to what the world-changing creation of Story’s mystical protege actually contains — but it’s nonsense coming from an artist who presumably wants to communicate a message to the viewer!
By far the biggest miscalculation, though, lies in Shyamalan’s choice of casting himself in the role of the writer, Vick Ran, whose work will one day change the world. Shyamalan isn’t bad in the role, and his innate sympathetic quality serves him well, but it offers a far too easy target for the film’s critics. Personally, it strikes me as a presumptuous leap to assume that this messianic character is meant to be Shyamalan just because he plays the role, but his presence invites exactly that response. If you do make that leap, then, yes, it’s hard not to conclude a staggering level of pompous self-importance that crosses the line into outright megalomania. Is that his intent? I’m skeptical, but the film offers no answer, which is more a strength than a weakness — just as it’s a strength that we are only told that Ran’s writing will upset people.
For me, though, that’s a potentially troubling strength, because I’ve always sensed a worrisome right-wing reactionary religiosity hovering about Shyamalan’s previous films. In short, if I knew what the world-changing creation would be, I might well loathe Lady in the Water. I’m more inclined to think, however, that we’re seeing the expression of an artist who knows he has something to say, but hasn’t been able to quite come to terms with what that something is. The result is a kind of tongue-tied eloquence that makes the film far more interesting than any level of outright explanation could. I hope I feel this way when I see the movie again — and I certainly plan on it. Rated PG-13 for some frightening sequences.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke