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
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
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
, 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.