Lady in the Water
By: Rod Williams on September 9, 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, M Night Shyamalan, Cindy Cheung, Freddy Rodriguez
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Country: USA
Australian Release Date: September 7, 2006
Distributor: Roadshow
Duration: 110 minutes
Defenders of M. Night Shyamalan's intriguing yet painfully naïve dark phantasies have once again come to the rescue of his latest oddity Lady in the Water. Predictably, it has been savaged by critics who now seem to salivate like Pavlov's Dogs upon seeing the director's name in the credits. The bottom line is that if M. Night Shyamalan's earlier movies worked for you, then Lady in the Water should also keep you entertained. Just be warned that Lady in the Water has less horror content than its predecessors – it's more of a modern faery tale meant for kids than The Village or The Sixth Sense, which have wider appeal. Think Narnia crossed with Seinfeld, perhaps.

Indeed, M. Night Shyamalan apparently first concocted this yarn for his own children's amusement, and that's the problem right there. Lady in the Water begins by literally sketching a baseline mythology from which the story unfolds. Like most fantasy tales, there is a quest to accomplish, unlikely heroes to recruit, arbitrary rules to follow, and monstrous foes to overcome. Unfortunately for the average popcorn-munching filmgoer who is of legal voting age (and who might be partial to movies that feature cannibal zombies raping mutant Euromodels), M. Night Shyamalan takes a gamble and refuses to reveal his intentions until the second act rolls around, assuming of course you ignore the OFLC's PG rating and "mild scary scenes" consumer advice.

This unconventional approach – toying with audience expectations, demonstrating narrative aloofness – has earned M.N.S. a fan base of sorts who have upgraded this writer-director to auteur status. Undeserved? Time will tell. In Lady in the Water, the twist is that there is no twist, a development that delighted many Night Shyamalan followers no end. The movie really is a fable originally aimed at kids, but pitched to adults and designed to suck adults in during the first act by pretending to be a wry melodrama about America's underclass, until the second act tells us that yes, it's all for real, and these tedious characters will take the fantasy elements seriously. Now, because the movie presents itself like a dream, the best parts occur when the dream becomes lucid and self-aware. Sadly, these moments are all too brief.

What else is good? A grassy wolf creature designed by Crash McCreedy, the dude who designed the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, is pretty cool...kind of American Werewolf in London meets Burke's Backyard, with the mandatory glowing red eyes added to get that "mild scary" impact, one supposes. This overgrown Cujo is responsible for a number of calculated seat-jumpers. (However, some laughable tree apes that show up late in the piece aren't as effective, and a third mythical beast was merely cut-and-pasted from Lord of the Rings.) There's some ultra-dry visual humour that works very well, not to mention M. Night Shyamalan casting himself as a Zen novelist then underplaying the role to the nth degree. Furthermore, one prickly character was conceived just to send up the director's critics. When Act Two arrives and you realise the movie exists purely to fuck around with convention and formula, Lady in the Water almost becomes fun to watch. In fact, you could see the entire film as a parody of earnest fantasies such as the Harry Potter movies, especially when a young boy divines some crucial wisdom by reading cereal boxes, no less.

There's certainly nothing too serious about Paul Giamatti (The Ant Bully, Sideways, Planet of the Apes remake) in this film. Imbued with a stutter and clothed in faded costumes left over from American Splendor, Giamatti as building manager Cleveland Heep (!) takes everything in his stride. That includes finding a near-naked albino aqua-girl (Bryce Dallas Howard, the blind girl from The Village) cowering in fear on his sofa. Drawn into the mystery are various tenants living in the apartment complex he runs, which is situated in Philadelphia. They consist of lopsided body builder Reggie (Freddy Rodríguez, the punk from Payback and the up-coming Grind House), crossword addict Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright from Syriana, Broken Flowers, Shaft remake), journalist and critic Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban from Ghost World, 2010, Altered States, and writer of the Monsters episode 'The Farmer's Daughter'), the novelist's sister Anna Ran (Sarita Choudhury), abrasive club chick Young Soon (newcomer Cindy Cheung), recluse Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin from Igby Goes Down), kindly old lady Mrs. Bell (Mary Beth Hurt from The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Red Dragon, Parents) and the cereal box savant (Noah Gray-Cabey). Together they help the beached water nymph by discovering purpose in their otherwise mundane lives.

Technically, Lady in the Water was poorly executed in many places. Several shots were out of focus and framed in ugly compositions – second unit photography gaffes? Surely not. The water sprite's cave beneath the communal swimming pool (i.e. myth pool) looks like a cardboard set from Doctor Who, and the nymph herself doesn't even have webbed fingers or latex gills to flaunt. Eventually, this cheesiness prompted speculation about whether the movie was all happening inside Cleveland's mind after losing consciousness at one point and almost drowning. But the clumsy triteness of the whole affair soon put a stop to such artistic interpretations. At best, M. Night Shyamalan delivers a handful of creepy sequences and some deadpan chuckles, while Paul Giamatti leads the motley ensemble cast as only he can.

Oh yeah...don't be fooled by the thriller-themed trailer: this is the only angle the marketing people at Warner Bros. could think of to promote the picture. Granted, Lady in the Water is hard to categorise, and that alone may be enough to spark interest in punters looking for movie experiences in which you keep asking yourself, "How did this ever get made?!" (Reading it as a satire is making more and more sense to me.) Otherwise, a DVD rental could be the way to go if The Village didn't turn you off M. Night Shyamalan for good.
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