Saturday, August 12, 2006

Review - Lady in the Water

An old proverb says "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”. Over the past six years M Night Shyamalan has fooled an awful lot of people. He came out of nowhere to write and direct The Sixth Sense, an affecting modern ghost story with a humdinger of a twist; but the greatest trick Shyamalan has pulled so far may have been his ability to fool people into thinking he's still the great filmmaker which he himself appears to think he is, and to convince the public that his films still have some sort of worth, even as the quality of his output has deteriorated at such an alarming rate.

The standard of his films reached their absolute nadir with The Village; a ponderous and baffling turkey which slowly built to one of the most nonsensical twists imaginable. At least, we all thought, Shyamalan couldn't get any worse. Could he?

Shyamalan's latest film is called Lady in the Water, and whether on not it marks a new low for the director is hard to fathom. My head is still reeling from the sheer awfulness of this picture, but I'm still not exactly sure what it is that I've just seen. What on earth is Shyamalan trying to pull with this insane tale of Narfs, Scrunts and stuttering superintendents? He has billed Lady in the Water as a 'bedtime story', after developing the film from a tale he told to his children - were they as utterly perplexed and bored during the telling as I was? I suppose Shyamalan can count his film as a success in one respect at least; his bedtime story is a pretty strong incentive to drift off into a blissful sleep.

For what it's worth, this is the story. The action takes place at The Cove apartments, which are run by a stammering superintendent with the rather Dickensian name of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Cleveland is a kind-hearted old lump, shambling amiably through his daily chores, but an innate sadness and air of loneliness seems to be weighing him down. Cleveland lacks a sense of purpose in his life, but a chance to change all that occurs when he discovers a naked young lady swimming in the pool after hours. This is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a water nymph or 'Narf' who has travelled from the Blue World on an important mission. Now, pay attention.

Story must find a writer who is writing a book called The Cookbook - only it's not a real cookbook, it's actually a collection of thoughts and ideas which will one day inspire a US President who will change the world for the better. The writer of said tome is living somewhere in The Cove, and a number of other residents have some sort of pre-ordained role to play in this cock and bull tale, but Story doesn't know for sure who any of them are. Story also has to deal with the presence of a 'Scrunt' who will stop at nothing to stop her from fulfilling her task. A Scrunt is a vicious dog-like creature which lurks in the bushes and is very hard to spot as it is completely covered in grass. There's still a chance the Scrunt may be ambushed by the Tartutic, though; they're a trio of evil monkeys who are also lurking in the surrounding trees somewhere. All Cleveland has to worry about is helping Story in any way he can; she needs to inform the writer of his importance before the giant eagle arrives to take her back to the Blue World. I am not making any of this up.

The extraordinary thing about Lady in the Water is the way Shyamalan fills scene after scene with exposition, and yet it still doesn't make an ounce of sense. The explanations start even before the opening credits, with a short sequence of stick figures detailing the backstory, but Shyamalan's attempts to clarify this preposterous tale even further only serve to muddy the waters. Cleveland learns the purpose of Story's visit in chunks from a pair of ill-advised Asian stereotypes, and these scenes are simply excruciating to endure (in particular, Cleveland has to pretend to be a child to hear the story. It's worse than you can possibly imagine). The film keeps explaining and re-explaining itself, but nothing ever adds up. Shyamalan exacerbates this problem by arbitrarily changing the rules of his imagined world in order to navigate the holes in his narrative. It's a cheap trick, which kills the film stone dead. You can spin a tale as fantastical as you like, but it must maintain some sense of internal logic to really work; and when the person telling the story is continually moving the goalposts, any semblance of tension or consequence is quickly lost.

The more one looks at Shyamalan's career, the more The Sixth Sense appears to be a fluke. It caught us off guard, and its biggest asset was the central trio of understated, touching performances from Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment and Toni Collette. But Shyamalan has struggled to catch that same lightning in a bottle a second time, and his subsequent work with actors has never been as strong. Lady in the Water does benefit from the casting of Paul Giamatti in the central role - he really tries to invest Cleveland with a sense of warmth and dignity, and he comes closest to making his character appear to be a real person - but the rest of the cast appear to be carved from stone, as if Shyamalan has seen dead people and decided to place them all in his movie.

Bryce Dallas Howard, the one bright spot in The Village, has nothing to work with here and she spends most of the film staring dumbly ahead, her attempts to express serenity leaving her with a permanently glazed expression. Such fine actors as Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban and Freddy Rodríguez are given embarrassingly short shrift; but Lady in the Water's most astonishing casting decision lies elsewhere. Shyamalan, who has mostly restricted himself to Hitchcockian cameos thus far, has decided the pivotal role of the writer whose work will change the world should go to none other than himself. It's either an act of staggering hubris or rank stupidity, but the man simply can't act to any level of competence, and his inert performance and complete lack of screen presence drains the life from every scene.

What a pointless, vapid waste of time this is. Is it meant to be scary? It isn't. Is it meant to be funny? It isn't. The film seems completely rudderless, as if Shyamalan simply wrote down every idea that popped into his head one night and set himself the challenge of giving it all some sort of narrative shape. Whatever he is trying to do with Lady in the Water he fails in every possible way. It doesn't even offer the sheen of professionalism which his previous films displayed. The great cinematographer Christopher Doyle gives the film a flat, dull look; and the night scenes are so murky it's often hard to follow the action. James Newton Howard's score fails to instil the film with any atmosphere, or give it any extra dimension. The dialogue, almost without exception, is lousy. Lady in the Water is a dull, humourless and utterly incoherent slog.

But of course, this is all grist to Shyamalan's mill. At times it seems Lady in the Water has been created solely as a sneaky retort to all the critics who finally exploited the holes in Shyamalan's work when they slammed The Village. Bob Balaban's character is a snide, smug and conceited film critic who is held up as a figure for derision, and who ultimately finds himself face to face with a Scrunt for having the gall to voice his opinions. "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intentions of another?” Shyamalan asks through Jeffrey Wright's character, and this is the crux of the issue. To truly appreciate Shyamalan's work, he seems to be arguing that we must see it through the eyes of a child, to lay down our critical faculties and regress to a state of unquestioning awe.

Sorry Mr Shyamalan, but it just doesn't wash; there's no way this worthless, self-indulgent and amateurish piece of work can be defended with such a facile argument. Writing these words may incur the wrath of the Scrunts, but the only conclusion one can reach after witnessing this mind-boggling folly is that Lady in the Water is a complete washout.