Friday, December 22, 2006

Lady in the Water

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodriguez, Mary Beth Hurt

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

Remember The Princess Bride? Rob Reiner's 1987 film that starts with a little boy being read a bedtime story by his grandfather and ends up being much more. You were hooked as the fairy tale took you to a magical world that evoked feelings of wonderment and excitement that have gone unmatched by any film in that genre for the past 20 years. People still quote it to this day. Now picture the complete opposite of that movie. It would be M. Night Shyamalan's Lady In The Water. It's also a fairy tale. Only it's stupid, silly and could have easily been written by a fourth grader. Actually no, that's kind of mean since a fourth grader could have probably weaved a tale considerably more intelligent and interesting than Shyamalan's. Critics ripped him apart for The Village a few years ago, but I thought it was an absorbing social commentary that contained a terrific twist ending right out of Rod Serling's play book. Even I can't defend him on this one though. After watching Lady in the Water I think everyone will appreciate just how good The Village really was as Shyamalan nearly commits career suicide with this picture.

Paul Giamatti plays ludicrously named apartment building superintendent Cleveland Heep who suspects someone's been playing in the complex's pool at night. That someone ends up being a sea nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who's trying to get back home to the "Blue World" but can't because a Scrunt (a wolf-like creature covered in grass) is prowling the apartment grounds determined to keep her out. Don't worry if that sounds ridiculous because it actually plays out far worse than I'm giving it credit for here. If you don't know what a sea nymph is don't feel bad. Neither did I. All you need to know is that she's a magical creature from a fairy tale, kind of like a mermaid, and she walks around... naked. A lot. Since this is PG-13 though, we don't get to see any of it so those with your finger on the pause button can settle down.

Story shacks up at Clevelend's place while they figure out a way to get her home using the special powers of an eclectic group of residents at the complex. These "special powers" include solving crossword puzzles, reading cereal boxes, and talking endlessly about nothing (movie's words not mine). Two of these residents are Asian stereotypes who just happen to know every single detail of this needlessly complex fairy tale before it happens. What a coincidence. That's unusually lazy writing from Shyamalan who seems to be phoning this whole screenplay in from another planet. You'll notice that M. Night himself is listed above as part of the cast. No surprise as up until now he's always had a small cameo role in all of his films (kind of like Hitchcock), but he gives himself a huge one in this. A writer whose work is going to "CHANGE THE WORLD." That's right, this man wrote and cast himself in that role! Let that sink in for a second.

Watching this I couldn't help but feel deep sympathy for Paul Giamatti. He was unjustly robbed of an Oscar nomination for Sideways two years ago and now he's starring in this disaster. Although it's hard to feel much sympathy for anyone who read this script and thought it had any redeeming value at all. Even more perplexing, it was actually a published children's book and is based on a bedtime story Shyamalan told his kid. That's kind of fitting, since I can't think of any tale that would put a child to sleep faster. We have the pleasure of having M. Night read us this story on the special features. Thanks, but I'll take a pass. I'm not exactly sure who this movie is aimed at since kids will find it too scary and adults will just be bored to tears or too busy laughing their asses off.

Giamatti, ever the pro, does his best and actually gives an affecting performance as a lonely widower who's "saved" by this girl. That just adds to the frustration though, because it's in the context of the silliest fairy tale ever told. I really like the idea of a lonely superintendent finding a mysterious girl one night at the pool who changes his life and the interesting residents of the complex. The movie started well and it was fascinating to see Cleveland's interactions with these wildly diverse characters from each room. We find out his family was killed and this relationship with this girl is the closest he's let anyone get to him in years. The ingredients were there to make an interesting character study, but Shyamalan is determined to to make the next Princess Bride. He's also determined to make Howard, who's a real talent, just stand expressionless and talk in a monotone for the entire film.

Then there's a new resident of the complex (played by Bob Balaban) who's smug, arrogant, and thinks he knows everything. His occupation? Film critic. You could probably guess what happens to him. Of course you have to remember this is the same guy who once requested a personal meeting with a critic who panned one of his films. I guess I should have been more careful writing this. I'll expect a call soon. If he wanted revenge on the critics who trashed The Village I could think of better ways. How about making a great movie instead forcing this self indulgent mess on us? Maybe this was just something Shyamalan had to get out of his system and then move on and make quality films again. I sure hope so, because Lady in the Water is about as bad as it gets.

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