July 19, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

Lady in the Water

Self-proclaimed cinema genius M. Night Shyamalan clearly intends Lady in the Water as bid for renewed fairy-tale storytelling in the movies. But judging from the film, the oral tradition he should have invoked is Homeric: Portraying himself as a unique, important filmmaker scorned by callous Hollywood executives, Shyamalan has enough hubris to make Vincent Gallo look modest.

Granting himself a possessive credit only two films after his first hit, Shyamalan — hilariously dubbed "the next Spielberg" by Newsweek — is still coasting on the success of The Sixth Sense (1999), a thriller that mainly caught on because audiences managed not to guess the twist within the first five minutes. The rug-pulling final act of The Village (2004) had viewers up in arms, but even worse was the ending of his second blockbuster, the proselytizing Signs (2002) — an invasion thriller based on the notion that if you believe in God, the aliens will go away.

Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger has attempted to validate Shyalaman's director-as-maverick self-image, writing a book about Lady in the Water's production. The title is The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. If Shyamalan is really hearing voices, they belong to the yes-men at Warner Bros., which ultimately signed on after Disney questioned the quality of his half-digested script.

Unimaginative enough to make The Village look like a masterpiece, Lady in the Water is a headlong dive into the waters of solipsism. Originally written as a bedtime story that Shyamalan told to his kids, the movie assumes inherent fascination in its particular mythology. But these aren't myths to live by; if anything, the Dada vocab suggests a universe created on the fly, with no regard for logic or lines that get bad laughs. After all the talk of "narfs" (sea nymphs) and "scrunts" (grass-covered wolves), you begin to wonder if the movie will end with a spelling test.

More verbiage: Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, a janitor who discovers a narf named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in the pool at The Cove, the Philadelphia apartment complex where he works and lives. Story has come to Earth from "the blue world" in order to inspire a writer who will, we're given to understand, change the course of society.

The religious symbolism — disciples, resurrection, discussion of "the awakening of men" — makes the Narnia chronicles look positively secular. But the deity of this particular universe isn't God but Shyamalan, who actually casts himself as the messiah. In the film, the character's treatise on how to change the world is called The Cookbook — an homage to the "Twilight Zone" episode "To Serve Man." Since The Sixth Sense derived wholly from "The Hitchhiker" and The Village has been accused of ripping off "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim," the tribute to Rod Serling is long overdue.

But it's hard to digest the notion that human progress will spring from a man whose movie includes two of the most offensive ethnic caricatures in recent years. The story pivots on two Korean American characters (Cindy Cheung and June Kyokolu) who speak "funny" pidgin English and provide well-timed advice on narfs and their various mytho-creature friends. In the most egregious of the movie's scenes, Cleveland pretends to be a child — dutifully gulping down milk and cookies — in order to quell the suspicions of the paranoid-immigrant mother.

Shyamalan equates torpor with suspense and reversals with profundity. In Lady in the Water, each of his characters — including roles played by Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin and Jared Harris — ends up having a clear purpose in the story. Nothing is insignificant, and thus nothing is of interest. Shyamalan wants to hook the viewer with suspense, but he never allows his audience to play along. He fills in his plot holes with additional hot air. If anything, he's building toward his own sub genre: blockbuster-as-sermon.

With his success validated by box office receipts but rarely by tastemakers, Shyamalan, in Lady in the Water, takes a swipe at anyone with the impudence to challenge his talent. One of The Cove's residents is a supercilious film critic (Bob Balaban) whose fate actually drew hisses from the screening room. "There is no originality left in the world. That is a sad fact I've come to live with," the character says — a claim that Shyamalan's movie pompously intends to refute. No such luck: If fairy tales are designed to put children to sleep, this one will go down as a model of the form.

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