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Lady in the Water   D

Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodriguez.

Review by Rob Vaux

Even the most talented artist should beware of overindulgence. The notion that a writer or director can do no wrong -- that anything spewing from his or her laptop is brilliant by default -- often leads to embarrassing incidents of hubristic excess. Such ego-fests virtually exterminated the golden age of the auteur at the end of the '70s, and now M. Night Shyamalan proves that a whole new generation of filmmakers can fall into the same trap. Lady in the Water displays none of the storytelling flair or technical expertise that has made him one of Hollywood's elite directors. Instead it wallows in a nonsensical would-be fairy tale that serves no purpose beyond its creator's narcissistic grandiosity.

Like many Shyamalan films, the central theme involves spiritual faith and the enduring power of myth. But the basic underpinnings of such a notion -- the ambient hum that gives bedtime stories their resonant power -- has been left on the wayside, replaced by a lot of empty trappings that clutter up the proceedings like smashed Christmas ornaments. The title character (played with inscrutable benevolence by Bryce Dallas Howard) is a "narf," a sort of oracle/sea nymph whose people once shared a close bond with humanity before we got all warlike and stuff. She emerges from the swimming pool of a Philadelphia apartment complex, intent on revealing a world-changing prophesy to one of the residents. But a bunch of sinister canine thorn bushes called "scrunts" are chasing her, forcing her to take refuge with the complex's maintenance man (Paul Giamatti), who is struggling with a ubiquitously troubled past. He and the other residents must unlock the puzzle of her presence while keeping her safe from the evil forces converging on the complex.

That's the core of it, buried deep down within the movie's bafflingly convoluted lexicon. Reaching it requires a tedious, astonishingly irritating march through scene after scene of quasi-Jungian horse flop. There are eagles and monkey-gods, and specific rules that must be followed for no apparent reason. The scrunts can be confronted, but only by certain people under certain conditions. The tenants each serve formalized roles in the unfolding drama -- guardians, translators, and even Greek choruses -- assigned with arbitrary whim and backed by terse explanations that they accept without question. All the fancy terms and obtuse lecturing cover up the fact that this is basically the story of a Little Mermaid being chased by the Big Bad Wolf. By focusing on the essence of that equation -- by understanding how simple elements of pursuit, protection, and hope can resonate on the deepest levels -- the film might have become the endearing fable it clearly wants to be. But Shyamalan is so hopelessly enamored of his own would-be inventiveness that he buries the point beneath unwieldy concepts pulled straight out of his ass.

With no context for the rest of us, Lady in the Water must explain itself in preposterous stretches of condescending exposition. Howard periodically squats in the shower and delivers ominously clunky bits of cosmic babble while withholding "forbidden" information that would resolve the plot in a heartbeat if "the rules" didn't prevent her from revealing it. The parts that she doesn't cover are left for an elderly Korean lady (June Kyokolu), whose half-remembered (and totally fabricated) folktales are full of important details filtered through her daughter (Cindy Cheung). For us, that means sitting there patiently while Giamatti asks a question, Cheung translates, Kyokolu answers in unsubtitled Korean, and Cheung translates back in mildly offensive pidgin English of the "me so ronery" variety. Any shred of magic gets mangled like Third World postage in the process.

More surprising than the film's creative detritus is how Lady in the Water fails on a technical level. Even the worst of Shyamalan's previous efforts had a certain elegance about their construction, and the presence of a talented cast and crew here suggests at least some level of craftsman's skill. But while DP Christopher Doyle establishes a nice magic-hour atmosphere, and composer James Newton Howard delivers a lovely score, the remainder of the film falls into clunky pieces. The scares are limited to cheap drive-in jolts, while the structure and delivery lack even the fundaments of Shyamalan's usual clockwork grace. The characters are composed in lazy shorthand, ranging from the gimmicky (a bodybuilder who exercises only half of his body) to the outright stereotyped (a talkative Jewish housewife). Ironically, the most interesting figure in the lot is a know-it-all film critic (Bob Balaban) whose presence marks a pathetically crude swipe at the director's supposed detractors. Believe me, there will be a lot more of them once this turkey hits the screen.

But such wrong-headed indulgence is inevitable when a project exists only to further its director's ego. Lady in the Water was made by Night, for Night, and about Night -- so fascinated by his own creative hiccups that he never considers whether anybody else might care. Ten years ago, before The Sixth Sense anointed him the next Steven Spielberg, he might have made something worthwhile out of this. But it would have taken an executive willing to demand rewrites and an auteur willing to accept constructive criticism. Neither of those things is in evidence here; Shyamalan is too "important" and Hollywood is too enraptured by his perceived box-office infallibility. Senseless, impenetrable, and infuriatingly self-involved, Lady in the Water should bring both those illusions crashing back to earth.

Review published 07.20.2006.

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