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Lady in the Water Review

Published July 20, 2006 in Movie Reviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of Warner Bros.
Lady in the Water Lady in the Water
Go see Lady in the Water for the most vicious roast of a celebrated entertainer not airing on Comedy Central. Society as a whole seems to have decided that it’s M. Night Shyamalan’s turn to be the whipping boy. He has made himself an easy target, and audiences of critics and seat fillers are already taking the liberty to take him down a peg.

Lady in the Water Movie Review

The thing is, I kinda liked it. There are plenty of problems with the movie but none that totally negate the wonderful magic of the mythology in modern day. It has all the trademarks M. Night Shyamalan, only slightly more heavy handed.

Building super Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) discovers a girl named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the swimming pool and realizes she’s a magical fairy tale creature called a narf. She’s here to help a writer realize his vision, but after she does that, some pesky scrunts block her return to the blue world. So Heep has to figure out more clues from the fairy tale to help her get home.

This still feels like an M. Night movie. Why should we hate it because he’s crazy? Plenty of great filmmakers are crazy or worse. M. Night’s just telling stories. He’s not hurting anybody but himself with his whiny insecurities. We celebrate plenty of filmmakers who actually physically and emotionally hurt others.

Narf, scrunt and tartutic may sound silly, but I was interested in the story. If J.K. Rowling can make up muggle, M. Night can have those three. It’s a far more involving than the manufactured tales of Da Vinci scholars. There you go. More intriguing than The Da Vinci Code. That can be my quote.

Like any fairy tale, it asks you to believe that made up things are important enough to be invested in. I have no problem with that. We’ll talk about the metaphors for the art of writing in a bit, but it’s a hopeful story. It’s about the power of storytelling and fantasy. That inspires feelings of joy.

The pure creature aspect is believable in the modern context. Characters take the story seriously because it’s what the story’s about. If you want to see people make fun of their own mythology, there are other films for that.

Lady in the Water Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard in Lady in the Water
Of course, there’s still plenty of humor in the film, a lot of it self-referential. Between ESL-level foreigners and a group of stoners, there’s something for everyone. The stereotypical Asian broken English is bad, but next week’s big summer blockbuster has clichéd accents even worse. Character’s natural reactions to the ridiculous are welcome comic relief. Even the film critic character has moments like Randy in Scream.

There’s plenty of suspense with underwater action and monster showdowns, set up in classical Hitchcockian fashion. Something’s supposed to work but then it doesn’t, so how on earth will they escape?

M. Night still finds interesting ways to shoot a boring old apartment building. Whether match cutting the trash can from three levels of the stairwell, focusing on Heep’s face and never showing a bug he’s exterminating or having everyone stand around a shower, M. Night exercises his visual muscles.

I didn’t even find M. Night’s acting that distracting in Lady in the Water. Maybe it’s because I was expecting it to be so disastrous, or maybe because he’s introduced as a funny slacker, but it’s okay for the most part. There’s one scene where he gets introspective and says things that are clearly meant to deflect his reputation, and instead do the total opposite, but at this point you gotta accept that M. Night is going to act so you write it off.

The film’s biggest downfall is its overt attempts to tell the audience why they should appreciate storytellers. From the film critic character pointing out the clichés of the very story we’re watching to the author accepting the burden of his influential work, M. Night is asking for trouble. He actually speaks the line, “I don’t think I’m something special,” which is hard to believe when he’s cast himself in his own film. It could be easy to be distracted, but don’t let a little self-indulgence ruin what is still a worthwhile theme. We do need storytellers. They give us metaphor, morals and just plain necessary entertainment. And hello, a little movie called The Matrix told us what to philosophically think of the world. Of course, it was also awesome.

The plot is totally predictable. In any of these stories where the characters have to figure out a magical puzzle, they’re going to mislead you. So whatever they think is the answer at first will turn out to be all wrong. Some of the reveals seem arbitrary, like “Oh, butterflies indicate this and we saw a butterfly earlier.” But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see that there’s no twist, that it’s just the characters working out a puzzle. It’s fun and still pays off.

It takes them a long time to figure out or reveal things that the audience is already savvy enough to get. Cries of “hurry up” from the audience confirm this. But again, that’s M. Night’s thing. It’s the slow burn. We figured out The Village but he still sat there and told us how it worked.

The biggest actual problem with the film is Giamatti’s stutter. It’s so big it’s more than a character trait. It’s a distraction.

Of course you can ask logical questions about the mythology. Why doesn’t she just run really fast and jump in the pool? The monster stays hidden long enough. The last monster is really lame, but they’re on and off quickly.

Maybe I’m just in a generous mood. Maybe the negative hype lowered my expectations. Maybe I’ve just seen a hell of a lot worse already. Lady in the Water left me happy and hopeful.

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Fred Topel
Sources: Image property of Warner Bros.

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