At The Picture Show
Ain't no mountain high enough . . . for M. Night's ego
Once Shyamalan gets off his high horse, he might realize he could have really had
something with 'Lady in the Water'
Lady in the Water
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Cindy
Cheugn, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Freddy Rodriguez and Mary Beth Hurt
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes
Opened July 21, 2006
(out of four)
In Lady in the Water there are two M. Night Shyamalans at work, and they
are at odds, pulling one another in opposite directions and with opposite intentions.
It is a nasty struggle.
The first Shyamalan is a rapidly-progressing filmmaker, a man of
uncommon talent whose films continue to grow in ambition and complexity. The
other Shyamalan is petty, childish, arrogant and self-absorbed to such a degree that
it makes it impossible for him to remain focused on what his other half has tried so
carefully to create. It is the combination of these two personalities that makes
Shyamalan's latest effort so intriguing, yet so off-putting.
(Oh, and there's one more Shyamalan -- the one who is a lousy actor but
insists on casting himself in his own movies, but we'll get to Him later.)
The first Shyamalan comes across during the
first half, as he crafts a hypnotic and visually arresting tale of a mysterious sea
nymph living secretly in the pool of a Philadelphia-area apartment complex.
Shyamalan guides us into the kind of fairy-tale world that is just south of reality,
the kind of world where stoner philosophers, eccentric old ladies and a bodybuilder
who works out only one side of his body all seem right at home.
Shyamalan gets the atmosphere just right in these early scenes. His rich
visual palette, which has always been one of his strengths, works beautifully as the
nymph, named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) gets discovered by the apartment
super, a lonely but friendly middle-aged man named Cleveland Heep (Paul
Giamatti). Without revealing too many details, Story is there for a reason -- and it
involves many of the people living in this apartment complex. It has something to
do with a grass-covered werewolf-like creature that seems to be after Story. And it
is up to Cleveland to help her.
What Shyamalan is going for is a sort of oddball
fairy tale, but he takes it a step further. The story wraps around itself -- becoming,
in some part, about its own telling, while still remaining focused and urgent -- and
Shyamalan creates layer after layer as Cleveland rushes to unravel the story by any
means necessary. From the plot structure to the clever dialogue, the set-up of Lady
in the Water is pretty fantastic. For a little while there, it seems -- especially for
those of us still reeling from the wretched, disastrous The Village -- that
Shyamalan has gotten his touch back.
And then the Evil Shyamalan takes over. And he proceeds to completely
lose the essence of the story in exchange for his own self-indulgent grievances and
vanglorious self-promotion. It is the Evil Shyamalan that decides to cast himself
not only as a writer who is going to change the world, but as a writer who is going
to change the world as a martyr! This is a colossal misstep not just because of its
transparency, but also because Shyamalan -- in his meatiest role yet -- is not a
good actor. In fact, he is a bad one. Someone needs to tell him this. Maybe one of
his other personalities could clue him in.
His writer character -- who goes by the name of
Vick Ran but might as well have been dubbed, oh I don't know, M. Night
Shyamalan -- is very important to Story's quest, and vice versa. She tells him his
future, that his book -- which he says is just his "thoughts on the world, on
leaders, etc." -- will be the springboard for a societal revolution in the not-too-distant future. What is curious about Shyamalan's decision to play this all-important writer is that, for all his fame and ego, he has never been known for any
heavy sociopolitical discourse…and now this is how he sees himself?
What exposes that as such a phony plot device is that we never get any hint
of why this writer is so important -- no hint of any tangible ideas or critiques or
anything. And that's because Shyamalan doesn't have any ideas, at least not as far
as we the audience can tell. The character is a completely useless one; without the
proper depth or explanation, Vick Ran serves no purpose at all. This is
masturbatory self-aggrandizement at its worst.
Even worse is the use of the film critic character (played by Bob Balaban),
which most have probably already heard about. In an obvious attack on the critics
that have made him a whipping boy -- primarily for The Village, for which they
were absolutely correct -- Shyamalan paints the critic as arrogant (Hi, Kettle?
Yeah, this is Pot. Um…you're black.), humorless, narrow-minded, pompous,
stodgy and, yes, completely one-dimensional. Interestingly enough, Shyamalan at
first finds a brilliant way to use the character within the story -- and I thought M.
Night was actually off the hook.
And then came the critic's already-infamous
death scene. Just before getting eaten by a monster (don't worry, I'm not ruining
anything important to the plot, I assure you), the critic launches into a smug, self-referential diatribe that, on Shyamalan's part, is a complete travesty, and
inexcusable. On paper, it might have seemed clever. But in execution, the speech
completely takes us out of the moment, ruins the illusion, destroys the reality
created by much of the rest of the film. It turns a would-be haunting bedtime story
into an outright farce -- and all just to stick it to 'em. (News flash, M. Night: The
Village sucked. It wasn't just the critics, it was the fans, too. It was everybody.)
Now, you might be thinking I'm getting a little off-topic here. You might be
asking what happens to the rest of the plot. Well, you might as well ask Shyamalan
that. In the midst of all his heavy-handed posturing in the second half of the film,
he loses what he had so effectively created in the first half. Story is a compelling
character for a while…and then she's practically non-existent, lost in the fog while
Shyamalan's All-Important Voice takes over.
What keeps the film going -- even working in
parts -- are the performances, particularly that of Giamatti. He has long been one
of our best actors, and proves it once again, giving us such an outpouring of
conviction and urgency and emotion that we can't help but be captivated, even
when his own fairy tale is crumbling around him. But by the time the third act rolls
around, the perfect balance the film found in its early scenes is gone -- everything
afterward is either too blatant or too ambiguous. There's no in-between.
Now here's the thing: All artists and all filmmakers have egos. Big ones. To
be even more specific, good filmmakers, talented filmmakers, great filmmakers
have enormous egos. They all do. There are no exceptions to this rule. Shyamalan
cannot be blamed for that. The problem he has is that his ego is actually getting in
the way of his art. He's become his own worst enemy. For all its great points --
and there are many -- Lady in the Water, in the end, comes across as one giant act
of self-defense. I was fascinated and repulsed at the same time. He can't really be
this insecure, can he?
The craftsmanship is clearly there. The materials are there, and the
possibilities are there. There is a lot to like in Lady in the Water, and somewhere in
there is a great movie. It's just a shame that M. Night Shyamalan couldn't find it.
Read more by Chris Bellamy