Lady in the Water (2006)
M. Night Shyamalan continues his descent from studio, audience, and critic darling to film-making pariah with 'Lady in the Water', a film that was reviled by seemingly everybody. Being a fan of his earlier films (loved 'Unbreakable' & 'The Sixth Sense', enjoyed both 'Signs' and 'The Village'), I suppose I ought to play Devil's advocate and say 'I liked it though'. Well, I did kinda enjoy it, but it is by far my least favourite of his films, and I think it's his weakest effort yet.
The story goes like this: Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), a man with a terrible past, is the caretaker of an apartment building. He goes about his mundane business maintaining the building and dealing with tenants' problems. We are introduced to the building's eclectic characters when Cleveland escorts a new tenant, film critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), through the building to his apartment. That night, Cleveland encounters a mysterious young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in the swimming pool (!) who calls herself Story and claims to be a 'narf'. Turns out that narfs are part of a Korean bedtime story as recounted to Cleveland by one of the tenants (Cindy Cheung); Story has come from her world to 'inspire' an individual to help change the world of humans for the better. That individual turns out to be Vik Ran (Shyamalan himself), a writer working on a political book that will some day (according to Story) change the world for the better. After meeting Vik, Story attempts to go back to her world but something goes wrong - a wolf-like monster lurks outside the building and prevents her from leaving. Digging deeper into the Korean story, Cleveland discovers that he needs the help of specific tenants who have a special 'purpose' as described by the bedtime story, and who if brought together can help Story get back home.
As with all Shyamalan stories, you have to accept the conceit or the whole thing will seem ludicrous. The basic idea is interesting, but the film gets off to a sluggish start after an uninspiring prologue. There is initially no sense of suspense or mystery to events; the film only starts to become engaging once Cleveland begins to assemble his 'team' of chosen people. It becomes less serious and more whimsical as it turns into a fairy tale itself, with the characters all being elements of fairy tale logic. There's a genuine sense of excitement in the last half of the film which elevates it from poor to watchable. Thematically the story addresses the importance of storytelling and of self belief, but it doesn't really handle these themes with much subtlety or insightfulness. One aspect that was interesting though was the self-referential 'meta' nature of the story, whereby the film indirectly comments on its own story structure. There's also an attack on the critical establishment via the pompous critic character Farber that I found to be quite hilarious (and ironic given how much critics liked Shyamalan's earlier films - in fact they only really attacked 'The Village'!) - the film seems to imply that curmudgeonly critics are hell bent on tearing things down instead of embracing the spirit of storytelling.
The biggest negative in 'Lady in the Water' is the fact that it sells itself as a bedtime story without staying true to the trappings of such stories. I've touched on the mythology of the 'narf', but it's actually way, way more complicated than that. Too complicated, in fact. Are we to accept the idea that this insanely complex and random set of rules and characters is befitting of a bedtime story? The way the rules are meted out is silly and while I'm no expert on Korea I'm fairly certain that the made up terminology is about as Korean as the name Shyamalan! Putting aside the complexity factor, the mythology itself is, for lack of a better word, lame. It lacks any sense of imagination or wonder, like some kind of cheap artificial construct, which is a fundamental failing in a story that hinges on said mythology. Another irksome aspect is how easily everyone buys into this story with hardly a shred of evidence, though this becomes easier to swallow as the tone of the film becomes more and more whimsical. A side effect of this whimsical tone is that while the characters are distinctive (in a cliched way) and fairly memorable, the film lacks many of the relationships and quiet character moments that are a hallmark of Shyamalan's other films.
One factor that offsets the lack of strong characterization to an extent is the strength of the performances from the large ensemble cast. Giamatti was never going to fail in the role of a morose and tragic man going through the motions, but his portrayal of the subsequent change in the character and his determination to save Story are just as convincing. Howard doesn't have to show much variety in the role of Story and spends much of the film barely dressed and lying on shower floors, but she's very convincing as an ethereal being from another world. Bob Balaban is hilarious as the irate film critic. Shyamalan always appears in his films, and his roles keep getting bigger; this is the first time he's been a major character, and he acquits himself reasonably well though I wouldn't want to see him try and be a leading man just yet. The rest of the cast is good in their minor roles, with Jeffrey Wright in particular being memorable as a gifted solver of crossword puzzles.
Shyamalan is on song as a director in getting strong performances from his cast and his distinctive bag of stylistic and visual tricks is again on display, as are the strong production values and musical score that are par for the course in his films. The thing that really lets the film down is the writing - while Shyamalan once again utilizes an interesting idea, the way the story is written is flawed and in some ways downright awful. 'Lady in the Water' isn't as horrific as some of the reviews would have you believe, but it is not a film that can really be recommended either. Shyamalan fans will undoubtedly want to check it out. I'm not sure whether to consider myself one anymore, given that his output is adhering to the law of diminishing returns; let's see how his next film turns out, when he almost certainly won't have as much freedom (as he has purportedly had since The Sixth Sense) following the back to back financial failures of this and 'The Village'.