Michael Bamberger's new M. Night Shyamalan book The Man Who Heard Voices includes a detailed account of how and why the director severed ties with Disney and headed to Warner Brothers with his latest film, Lady in the Water. Already wary after the lukewarm reception to The Village, the studio execs didn't "get" Shyamalan's new screenplay. Among their objections: a scene in which a snotty film critic gets his comeuppance. "You're going to let a critic get attacked?," Bamberger quotes Disney pres Nina Jacobson as saying. "They'll kill you for that."
Well, let me be very clear about this at the outset. I hated Lady in the Water, but not because Shyamalan took a sophomoric potshot at critics. I hated Lady in the Water because it's a stupid-ass movie. But I'm just one critic. Reasonable people can agree to disagree. Some see the mullet as a hairstyle of considerable fashion sense. Some find Carrot Top a paragon of hilarity. Some will no doubt agree with Shyamalan that his genius just isn't understood yet.
Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, a once-proud man now hiding out as the custodian of The Cove, a Philadelphia apartment complex that surrounds a pool. The pool has been raising eyebrows, with strange cloggings of the filter and authorized nightly splashings. One night, a lady emerges from the water and introduces herself as Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). Turns out she's a narf on a mission of mercy from the water people. See, the water people haven't given up on us selfish land dwellers. Heep and the Cove tenants are meant to help Story figure out how to deliver her fortunetelling message to the correct occupant, while protecting her from the spiny, canine-esque scrunts that inexplicably lie in wait to tear her to shreds.
Shyamalan seems to realize—and not care—that all of the elaborate discussion of narfs and scrunts sounds lame. His screenplay is endlessly self-referential, and he plays the role of a writer poised to make a great difference in the course of humanity. Then there's that critic, played by Bob Balaban. Everyone else in The Cove has inner idealism just waiting to be tapped, but the misguided critic has lost his innocence, his imagination, his capacity for surprise or, presumably, love. I wonder what kind of movies crushed his spirit. I'll take a wild guess and say "bad ones," but consider the source.
Among Shyalaman's own films, the Lady in the Water narrative most resembles meta-comic-book movie Unbreakable. This one's a meta-bedtime story (based on an actual bedtime story Shyamalan spun for his kids). As a kernel of an idea for a film, it's not bad: an allegory for individuals searching for a grand design and finding one's own purpose in life. But in the execution, Lady in the Water is sadly inept. The precious and/or portentous dialogue mostly sounds like the worst role-playing-game ever, with a glassy-eyed Howard intoning instructions as the Game Master.
In the film's greatest irony—given the subject matter—the misshapen narrative makes few concessions to basic storytelling techniques that have worked for centuries, elements like pacing, integrated exposition, character, and dialogue, to name but a few. Heep, arguably the most developed character, gets a lazy backstory tossed out in a couple of lines, but at least he distinguishes himself by his actions—and Giamatti's survival instincts as an actor.
With strained humor and contempt disguised as affection, Shyamalan sets out cardboard cut-outs and coarse stereotypes, including a dingbatty Korean student (Cindy Cheung) and her mother (June Kyoto Lu), who together get the lion's share of the exposition. Shyalaman also does damage to Jeffrey Wright, Mary Beth Hurt, Freddie Rodriguez, Tovah Feldshuh, Bill Irwin, and, lest we forget, ace cinematographer Christiopher Doyle. The cutesy ensemble of not-quite-white-trash suburbanites, otherworldly creatures, neo-Williams scoring by James Newton Howard, and Dreyfuss-esque anchoring by Giamatti remind us of the writer-director's Spielberg fetish, but Shyamalan seems less and less sure of how to work over an audience.
"There is no originality left in the world," says the wrong-headed critic, but authorial, smug self-consciousness makes Lady in the Water stand out for all the wrong reasons. Just before the critic becomes dog food, a character ponders, "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?" Is it too much to presume Shyamalan intended to tell a good story?