Way back in Episode 4, Stephen assured us all that not even I could possibly like M. Night Shyamalan’s latest dark fantasy, Lady In the Water, released this past summer and hitting DVD just recently. I cannot tell a lie. Stephen was wrong. I liked Lady In the Water.
Let me qualify my statement. I think Shyamalan is still in his downward spiral. I was one of a few to like The Village, but I thought it was a far cry from The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Lady In the Water is another big step down. The film doesn’t work as the thriller it was sold as, that’s for sure — I enjoyed it from a totally different angle. But I wouldn’t argue with anybody that hated it, which is why I decided to post about it, rather than bickering with Stephen on the show.
So what was that totally different angle? I’m completely befuddled as to why I haven’t seen reviews mention it, why the ads for the film tried to hide it, why all the criticisms I’ve read miss it — even the IMDb’s genre listings don’t categorize the film correctly. This is a comedy! It’s a parody of myths and fairy tales and all their arbitrary rules about who is what and how things have to be and how crazily complicated things must get. I’ve read a lot of negative reviews of the film complain that the story doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t, but I think that’s the point. I’m not making up excuses for it. The film is very active and deliberate and conspicuous about making fun of its own story.
Consider a scene where the motel owner (Paul Giamatti) consults with the mother of one of the maids for details of a bedtime story that seems to be actually happening. She doesn’t speak English, or at least doesn’t choose to, and so he’s on the cell phone with the maid, who asks to have the phone passed back and forth as she plays mediator. It’s a pretty funny scene, played out in a comic rhythm. More of these types of scenes ensue, and with each one, the picture is complicated further. There isn’t just a Chosen One (prophecies naming a “Chosen One” — that exact term — is a pet peeve of a cliche for me, and I rolled my eyes when I heard it until I realized the movie was using it in jest), there is also a Guardian, a Protector, a Guild, and all kinds of other preordained roles, and in the time-honored tradition of such things, the heroes are ordinary people — virtually all of which are quirky comic sidekicks of some kind — who are unaware of their own importance in the cosmic scheme of things. And obviously there is an arbitrary but crucial element of time — the arbitrary but crucial important thing can only happen at an arbitrary but crucial point in time, provided that arbitrary but crucial circumstantial requirements can be met. There’s an arbitrary but crucial villain, all the more dangerous for breaking an arbitrary but crucial rule.
The film both celebrates and parodies the “arbitrary but crucial.” Myths are rife with them. You can’t look Medusa in the eyes, because you’ll turn to stone. Have you ever really thought about that? The legend is old enough that it gets respect it would never, ever, ever have gotten if it had shown up for the first time in a recent movie. Sleeping Beauty can only be woken by the kiss of true love. Huh?? Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies, but he can become a real boy if he learns to be good. Yeah, right! Tell me another, pal!
Lady In the Water makes fun of those kinds of thing, inasmuch as it celebrates how cool and compelling they can be. It’s more successful with the former than the latter. It’s a tough balancing act, trying to make fun of something and pay tribute to it at the same time, although certainly there are great movies that do just that. But Lady In the Water made me laugh, and that ain’t bad.
I mentioned before that while I liked the film, I wouldn’t argue its merit too hard. There is one aspect, though, that I think is absolutely brilliant, and that’s Paul Giamatti’s performance in the lead role. Giamatti is utterly fantastic. He gives this role his all, and I think he strikes exactly the right notes for every scene, even when the film itself misses the mark. And the film asks him to do a surprising amount with his role — because it’s not all that much of a role, and yet he’s called upon to play both dramatic and comedic notes, to be utterly sincere about preposterous material, to bear the scars of a tragic past and yet not play the role too heavily. He nails it all. I think if this exact same performance appeared in a better movie, we’d be talking about Giamatti in the Oscar race. I certainly think he should be in the running, but of course nobody nominates a great performance from a poorly received film, no matter how deserving.
I also liked Bryce Dallas Howard, as the sea nymph that shows up unexpectedly in the motel swimming pool. Unlike Giamatti, she’s not asked to do very much at all, but she does right by what she’s given, and she has a pale, exotic beauty in her face that’s just perfect for this character.
Most of the other characters are one-dimensionally comic. The best of these is the absolutely hilarious character played to a tee by Bob Balaban. I absolutely loved his comic delivery of pretty much all his lines, and his scenes were my favorites.
Which leads me to the next big subject I want to talk about, which is the not-so-subtle parallel with Shyamalan and the critical reception to The Village. As usual, Shyamalan plays a small role in this film. This time, he plays a writer, who is destined to write some great work of art and inspire a global reawakening that will save the world. The aforementioned Bob Balaban plays a critic…who is always wrong!
Critics and entertainment journalists had a field day with that last summer. We heard a lot about how unbelievably arrogant Shyamalan must be, portraying critics of his writing as stodgy nincompoops interfering with an important world-changing artistic process. Certainly his preexisting reputation as an egomaniac did not help matters.
Shyamalan is far from the first director to lambast critics in a movie. Caricatures of Siskel and Ebert, as a recent example, showed up as corrupt politicians in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (though, inexplicably, they were not eaten). The difference here is that Shyamalan isn’t just taking down the critics; he’s also building up himself. But I dunno. Maybe Shyamalan is an egomaniac and really believes what he’s written, but if we take the movie on its own terms, apart from any real life reputation the man has justly or unjustly accrued for himself, this is all so absurdly over-the-top that it feels very tongue-in-cheek to me. Right or wrong, it’s fun. And, honestly, if I were a director and could include something fun in a movie that would set critics off on frothy tirades, I’d probably be tempted. I got nothing against critics. I just think frothy tirades are pretty funny.
Anyway, the bottom line for me is that I didn’t think Lady In the Water was a great movie, but I did enjoy it. It’s not focused at all, but Giamatti’s performance tenuously holds it together, and it pokes enough fun at itself that I was amused and found the film a pleasant diversion.
This is, I suspect, the furthest Shyamalan can go before he loses me, though. One more step down that downward spiral, and that’ll be a negative from me. I think at this point, he needs to do something radically different (Lady In the Water is pretty different, but it looks the same), and/or direct somebody else’s screenplay. He’s great with story ideas, and he’s a great director, but I don’t think he’s nearly as good at writing screenplays. If he hooked up with the right collaborator, threw a story idea at him, and directed the screenplay that came back, the potential is enormous.