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Lady in the Water

a film by M. Night Shyamalan

For several days now - ever since first seeing Lady in the Water and driving home afterward shaking my head and mumbling incoherently - I have been trying to wrap "my critical jaws around this muffin" (as Michael Atkinson wrote in his critically acerbic bon mot in The Village Voice this past week). So far though, my so-called critical jaws have bitten down to no avail, yet here I am writing my review of the damned film after all - although perhaps just in order to assuage the befuddled mess I have become ever since first seeing this film. I just cannot honestly believe what I saw up on that screen.

There are certain films one just expects to be awful. B-grade slasher films. Teenage sex comedies. Straight-to-video women-in-prison movies. Although many of these do have at least a somewhat perverse - sleazy if you will - charm to them. Anything with the Wayans brothers involved. These are the dregs of cinematic society - we all know that and we all live with that - but what one does not expect is to find nearly that same level of putridity in a film by an established filmmaker such as M. Night Shyamalan. Perhaps not to the same grade of amatuer hour floorshow the aforementioned genres are apt to provide, but with more than enough hackneyed theatrics to warrant serious DGA-revoking censure talks among those in the know.

Granted, I have never exactly been the biggest fan of Shyamalan's work to begin with - always ranging somewhere betwixt mediocre and middling - but this film, by a filmmaker who has apparently gone so over the edge he believes himself some impervious Achilles-like auteur who can hand us just about anything and we are expected to swallow it down whole, without any questions or criticism whatsoever, and of whose horribleness makes even the Village in comparison appear as if to be the very second coming of Citizen Kane, goes far beyond - and below - any imaginable (or even unimaginable) pre-show worst-case scenario I could have come up with, even at my most critically vexatious and/or unscrupulous.

Many have called me a harder-than-most critic, and I suppose that is true for the most part, but even Pauline Kael during that time of the month could not pretend to chortle out as scathing and vituperative of an analysis as I want to spew forth with every inch of my brain tissue and critical muscles and intestines. The stupidity alone is enough of a reason, but toss in some of the most ridiculous dialogue and ham handed acting ever put onto a "serious" mainstream film such as this one, and you have yourself a glaring target for all the bile one can get his critical jaws around. I suppose though, I must grab the bull by the horns and ride him in, treading ever-so-lightly the thin line between criticism and hostility. And incidentally, I am not sure why I have taken such a vehement dislike to this film - I've seen bad films before, many worse than this - but something deep inside my psyche has just taken a hold and now controls me into thinking I must take pen in hand and critically pan this arrogant attempt at filmmaking. So here - for better or worse - is my attempt at reviewing a film so unbelievably insane it is laughable beyond any sort of coherent critical thought.

The story goes as thus. A "narf", you see, which is some sort of sea nymph (here played with her usual blindly-staring-forward-and-doing-absolutely-nothing routine by Bryce Dallas Howard, sion of Opie and muse to Shyamalan) must be seen by a chosen human in order to go back to her homeworld - the "blue world" - and in being seen, the narf will induce said chosen human into doing something great for humanity, but all this must be done before the "scrunts" - hulking and skulking grass-backed hyenas - kill and devour her, but she need not worry too much as she will have a chosen "guardian" to protect her, as well as a "symbolist", a "guild" and a "healer" to ward off the growling "scrunts" long enough for the "great eatlon" - a giant eagle-esque bird - to whisk her off, back to the "blue world", unless, of course, the "tartutic" intervenes, and then you have a...

Jesus Christ, just writing this all down and reading it aloud to myself makes it all seem even more ridiculous than it seemed on screen. Seriously, why would anyone make this movie? Seriously. Even the addition of Paul Giamatti, as a sadsack super in the run-down bargain basement Lynchian apartment building this whole "bedtime story" takes place in and around, does nothing for a film that could never even dream of being taken seriously, even as the fairy tale it proposes itself to be. A fairy tale envisioned by Shyamalan as a bedtime fable for his children (and in the darkness of night it probably should have stayed), the film seems to go both nowhere and every which way at the same time, never settling long enough to garner any truly serious consideration as any sort of mature morality tale, which is what I suppose Shyamalan was going for here.

And to add to the frustration of one's experience in watching this mess of a movie, Lady in the Water doesn't look any better than it sounds or feels. Christopher Doyle, the cinematography maestro that brought such fantasmical fantasies such as In the Mood for Love, Hero and 2046 to such vivid life, seems to be slumming here - working with tools so far below his Promethean bound talents that he isn't even sure what to do with them.

Sadly enough, disastrous script, ego-tripping director and phoned-in photography aside, Lady in the Water is brimming with a more-then capable cast - all wasted here. Along with the already mentioned Giamatti, Shyamalan has collected the wonderful, yet rarely seen these days, Mary Beth Hurt as a matriarch archetype with not much to do, and the quirky Bill Irwin as the resident paranoid recluse - both stars of stage more than screen these days. We can also catch glimpses of, along with almost completely ignored Jared Harris and Freddy Rodriguez, Geoffrey right as a crossword puzzle-head - a good actor lost yet again in the mire of a bad film - and Bob Balaban as a cocksure and jaded film critic. And we all know how beloved critics are to filmmakers, so it should come as no surprise at how this character is received (although being a cocksure and jaded film critic myself, I couldn't help but be enthralled with Balaban's character being the only real life characterization, albeit a jagged one, in the whole damned film). Throwing himself in as the potential messiah figure may have been a mistake on Shyamalan's behalf that we won't even go into here other than to merely scoff at his arrogance.

Unfortunately for these usually talented actors, not only do they have to attempt to weave themselves throughout such a silly, inane story by a possibly off-his-rocker director, but must also attempt act their way around the vapid shell that is Ms. Howard - an actress so devoid of any personality and so poorly conceived of talent, that even a Lars von Trier film will inevitably suffer her consequence of doomed failure.

In the end, we find that the character that suffers the worst fate is that of Bob Balaban's film critic. His brutal death (and I don't think I am giving anything worthwhile away with this revelation of storyline) is an obvious counter attack to the nearly universal panning of The Village and the lack of "respect" Shyamalan has received during the filming of this thing of a film. Well, guess what Mr. M. Night - you ain't seen nothing yet. [07/24/06]

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