Friday, July 28, 2006
  Theatrical Review: Lady in the Water

Dear reader, please forgive me if this review of Lady in the Water trails off and ends abruptly. If reviewing the film is anything like watching the film, there's a very good chance that I'll nod off before I'm done.

Not that I did fall asleep while watching Lady in the Water. I managed to stay awake all the way through it by sheer willpower. I'm sure the caffeine in my Diet Pepsi helped, too. Nonetheless, I left the theater convinced that nobody should be allowed to see Lady in the Water without a prescription. This is one powerful sedative.

Still, I suppose that a sedative is better than a placebo. M. Night Shyamalan's last film, The Village was just that: a placebo. A fake. A scam. A sugar-coated nothing. After seeing The Village, I left the theater feeling disgusted. After Lady in the Water I left the theater feeling… well, nothing at all.

All of this is really quite disappointing when you consider that the three films Shymalan made previous to The Village (1999's The Sixth Sense, 2000's Unbreakable, and 2002's Signs) were all outstanding films. In fact, I'd call them three of the best films of the past ten years. Maybe the problem with making three great movies back to back is that you set yourself up for a terrible height from which to fall.

So, maybe, in a way, Shymalan should be commended for Lady in the Water. It really is an ambitious undertaking for a storyteller. Maybe the most ambitious thing a story-teller can ever try to pull off. With this new film, Shymalan has tried to create his own mythology out of whole-cloth. Essentially, that's what this story is; a new mythology, analogous to nothing and allegorical to nothing. That's a mighty task to take on. With Lady in the Water, Shymalan has tested (and found) the limits of his abilities as a storyteller.

Here's the story in a nutshell… or, if you like, on the half-shell: In ancient times, mankind always lived close to the water and was guided in all things by a powerfully spiritual race of water-dwelling people. Over the years, mankind moved further inland, motivated by selfish conquest. By the modern day, man has lost contact with the water people, although they continue to try to make contact with us and guide us back to our original innocent ways. Bryce Dallas Howard plays one of the sea people who has somehow come to live in the pool of an apartment building managed by Paul Giamatti.

Of course, if you've got supernatural good guys (angels, basically), you're going to need supernatural bad guys. The demons in Lady in the Water are, to be fair, interesting looking monsters. They look like werewolves made out of shrubbery. Half lycanthrope, half leafy-green vegetable. It sounds corny, but they did look neat.

The plot hinges on the people in the apartment building and their attempts to save the sea nymph from the werebush, and to meanwhile learn the big spiritual message that she'd come to teach them in the first place. I hope that by the time the film was over, they did figure out the sea nymph's big spiritual message… because Lord knows I never did.

Here's the thing: If you're telling a story about interactions between real-world people and supernatural beings, it doesn't matter if the interactions are positive (ala Cocoon) or negative (ala Fire in the Sky). What does matter is that the circumstances and the events of the story are meaningful. The events that unfold have to have some kind of resonance with the viewer, and the characters have to be people that we have a reason to care about. That's hard to pull off. When a movie maker does pull it off, the final product is a wonderful film, such as Signs. When the movie maker can't pull it off, he does have the option of covering up his shabby story with a special effects spectacular. When that happens, you end up with hollow-but-fun spectacles like the recent War of the Worlds remake.

There is, of course, a third option: That's when the movie maker comes up with a crappy, lame story but tries like crazy to sell it because he seems convinced that his story simply must be a good story because, after all, it's HIS story. When that happens, you end up with cinematic Ambian, Such as Lady in the Water.

This movie simply never should have happened. The story is flimsy and silly, and it seems like the "mythology" is being made up along the way. The actors don't seem to care about the story any more than I did, even the always reliable Giamatti really phoned it in here. Bryce Dallas Howard in the title role was… well, she was in the movie. That's the only impression she made on me.

Most frustratingly, Shymalan continues to insist on acting in his own movies, and he's just not a particularly inspired or inspiring actor. His on-screen presence in Lady in the Water was less of a distraction here, though, than it was in Signs… mostly because none of the other actors seemed to care enough about the story to act well enough to show him up. Remember that one scene in Signs… that one painfully cringe-inducing scene involving a critical exchange between Shymalan's character and Mel Gibson's character? I remember feeling embarrassed for Shymalan, who didn't seem to realize how downright silly he looked on screen, trying to hold his own with Gibson, a far superior actor. Here's my point: The best thing I can say about Lady in the Water is that the indifference that seemed to afflict all of the other actors was sufficient enough to make Shymalan's performance not seem embarrassing by comparison.

I hate to say it, but I think Shymalan is done. Still, look on the bright side: inside of four years, he made three wonderful films. Plenty of movie makers have thirty year careers and never make even one film that compares to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, or Signs. There are very few Hitchcocks, Kubricks and Spielbergs. The great majority of directors never make an exceptional film. Shymalan made three of them, back to back, between 1999 and 2002. That is really a worthy achievement. Let's give him a big hand… and let's show him the door.

Since I was with you and Wendy when you saw The Village, I am suprised that you even bothered to go see Lady in the Water.

I will never forget all three of us laughing out loud at the end of The Village. What a rip off.

I love this review and will never see another his movies until every single critic on the planet gives it a good review. And since he apparently insulted every critic on the planet in this movie, that will never happen.
I skimmed to avoid spoilers, but at the very least you saved me a movie ticket. If anyone gets my money this weekend it will be Kevin Smith.

Also, much respect for saying he made "three wonderful films". I feel the same way although a lot of reviewers would go so far as to say the Sixth Sense was his only good one. I liked what Signs had to say and it had some good "holycrap" moments, and I naturally gravitate toward Unbreakable as the ultimate unsung comic book movie, giving the medium respect as mythology. I'm disappointed but not surprised about Lady in the Water. It seems like trailers didn't even try to be vague about it, like they didn't want to take chances on people being disappointed.
I loved Unbreakable and Signs(didnt care for the water weakness in Signs. Why would a alien race travel to a planet that's made of mostly water? If it was raining season, they would have been in trouble!), but I’ll wait for the Lady in the Water DVD. Thanks for the review.

The Village was rather dull in some places, didn’t have a good story.
MCF, you can read the whole thing if you want, I made sure to write it spoiler free... but trust me, there's just nothing here to spoil. To the extent that this review "spoils" anything, I hope all it spoils (in some small way) the boxoffice take of a substandard movie.
I think if he didn't try to have these shocking endings with every single movie and tried to expand himself a bit he could do a great job. I thought Unbreakable was great, a subtle super hero flick. I thought the village was well done too. It is a monster movie without any monsters. I thought that was frickin' brilliant.
Darrell, you susre can think and analyse and write. The fact that I don't agree with you about TLiTW probably has a lot to do with whatever it is that replaces hormones in 60+ women....and Paul Giammatti.
yikes only 1 1/2 director thingy ma-bobs.

that's no good at all.

i think b/c of your previous village comments on StrangeCulture I was surprised when you said you saw this film.

--RC of
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