Friday, December 15, 2006

Lady in the Water

[NOTE: This really isn't a twist movie like M. Night Shyamalan's others, but I still feel like I should put a spoiler warning up here at the top. If you haven't seen this awful piece of shit yet, don't. DON'T! But if you must see it, and don't want to know the immensely lame developments of the Third Act, read no furhter.]

Does M. Night Shyamalan ever doubt his storytelling prowess, even for a moment? Do you think he ever genuinely stops to consider his ideas impartially, or does he just take as a given that his ceaselessly imaginitive, Miltonian brain could not possibly create a thought lacking for greatness in any way?

Directing Hollywood films requires a healthy ego and an aggressive attitude. They don't just turn over $50 million to anybody and tell them to take 4 months and make some art. This is a high-pressure job that attracts some exceedingly loathsome, devious, self-obsessed individuals. The history of filmmaking is, in some ways, a series of anecdotes about sinister, intoxicated men pushing other people around in order to realize their personal, often perverse, visions. But even for a colleague of Warren Beatty and James Cameron, Night may be pushing the whole asshole-auteur thing a bit far.

If Lady in the Water is about anything, it's about M. Night Shyamalan's love for his own imagination, and his naked hostility at anyone who would dare question the magic and wonder of his inner world. So enamored has he become with his gift for invention, Night has seemingly forgotten all about the fundamentals of storytelling and filmmaking. His most smug, self-satisfied work, thus, becomes easily his least proficient.

There has already been a book published about the making of this film, because surely this is an ego trip of legendary proportions that should be prserved for posterity as a warning if nothing else. Night submitted the script for Lady in the Water to the suits at Disney, who offered to make the film with him while offering reservations about the story itself. (Watching the film, one can only sympathize with anyone, studio executive or no, having to provide constructive criticism and notes to its author..."Maybe you could rewrite this exchange so it isn't so overblown and terrible? Wouldn't it be interesting if, between pages 30 and 90, something happened?")

Hearing his masterpiece slighted so barbarically (they only offered him $40 million to make a movie!) caused Night to have what sounds like a mental breakdown, after which he severed ties with his old studio and skipped across Burbank to the WB. The result is, if not the worst film of 2006, certainly the silliest. I mean, really...This insipid bedtime story makes that dancing penguin cartoon look like Rules of the Game.

Night, listen to me carefully...We're going to have a little filmmaking intervention here, like Bobby D bringing Martin Scorsese the Jake LaMotta book that inspired Raging Bull when the director was in detox...You're in narcissistic personality disorder detox...

First, stop obsessively sniffing your own farts. Now then...Unbreakable 2: Breakable...Let's get it done.

Lady in the Water is complicated in the least interesting way possible. Essentially, Night has refashioned his mediocre science-fiction hit Signs into a fairy tale with significantly diminished results. That film focused on a preacher who had lost his faith (Mad Mel Gibson) and his family, who survive an alien attack only by discovering, at exactly the right moment, that "fate" has dealt them each a crucial role to play.

The premise here in unchanged but expanded. Lady in the Water exists in a world governed solely by fate. Individuals have been mysteriously drawn to an apartment building where a fated meeting between a mystical creature and humanity's savior will occur. Unbeknownst to them, they will each play a part in saving the world.

When you get right down to it, the entire concept has a creepy undertone. Free Will no longer exists in the Shyamalan universe. Destiny runs all. In Signs, this notion of fate was rendered as explicitly religious: fate is just another word for God, who knows what we are going to do even before we do it and thus plans all of our lives out ahead of time. Lady in the Water replaces the theology with a bogus, New Age-y spirituality, but the message is otherwise the same.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a lonely, broken man who works as a Super for an apartment complex called The Cove. He's known and liked by everyone in the building, but doesn't say much, largely keeping his head down and staying out of the way. One night, he finds a strange, pale girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming in the pool. This is Story (ugh), a magical water nymph who has come to The Cove looking for a writer.

Night claims that he made Story (ugh) up on the spot as a bedtime story for his children. I completely believe this account. The mythology surrounding Story might be the most ludicrous ever set to film, at least since Labyrinth. Okay, here we go...

Once upon a time, humans and nymphs (also called narfs) lived together in the sea. But then, humans started wanting to own things, so they went on to land and started building little huts that look like the heads of penises. So humans now live on land and fight wars and feel unhappy, and the nymphs keep trying to send us messengers to let us know how to save ourselves. But mean wolf-like creatures named scrunt (triple ugh) try to stop them, for some reason.

I don't know why humans had to go on land in order to start acquiring things. If we lived in the sea, wouldn't we just get greedy and possessive about ocean merchandise? I could see us all trying to buy the flashiest periscope bling or the longest harpoons. Also, I have no idea why this opening sequence was gendered, but the nymph species is all female and the human species all male. (Consider the title as well, and the fact that, as I pointed out before, all the human huts look like cocks.) This seems kind of peculiar and patriarchal to me. Are women not also human beings, who make war and seek ownership? And are men incapable of being in touch with the natural world, and therefore wise and enlightened?

The mythology gets far, far more complicated. There are keys to find, Queen Nymphs to crown, monkey soldiers to conscript (seriously...), hidden keys to obtain, and of course the occupants of the building have to figure out how they figure into Story's perilous return voyage to her home, The Blue World.

Unfortunately, Night doesn't bother to actually show us anything of interest. All we get talky scenes set in and around this apartment building, populated entirely by stock characters and crudely drawn racial stereotypes. From the extended, bickering Mexican family to the burnout circle of stoners, Night clearly hasn't put in a lot of time on developing relatable, original characters this time around, and that's a shame because the film has no action or style to distract from their banter. His technique of keeping most of the really juicy action just off-screen and tantalizing us with the barely-viewed details worked well in suspenseful genre movies like The Sixth Sense and Signs; it's creepier not to know what's waiting around the corner.

A sentimental (not to mention juvenile) fantasy like Lady in the Water needs to give us a bit more than a blurry shot of a wolf and an animated sequence before the credits. It's unclear why Cleveland or his neighbors would even believe Story and her ridiculous assertions about scrunts and tartuteks and whatever the fuck else she's being chased by, because you really don't see much of anything except an empty apartment building. The entire film, beginning to end, takes place in a few apartments and by the pool.

Instead of any action, really any movement at all, Night gives us insufferable scenes in which Cleveland's Korean neighbor Young Soon-Choi (Cindy Cheung) translates for him the entire Narf legend, which her mother learned as a child. Night's written some other films, so he knows what a lazy screenwriting device these Korean neighbors are, and how uninteresting these thick blocks of bland exposition would be for an audience looking for thrills and escapism. He surely also knows that the story here (lower case) has no tension, because Young's mother could just relate the entire Korean legend all at once and reveal all the plot's riddles. When the only thing keeping your narrative afloat is the whim of an old Korean lady with nothing much to do, you know your script has some structural flaws.

Mainly, it's offensive. These are exoticized Orientals who know some obscure mythology that's not even real, that this guy just made up and has now assigned to their culture. Also, despite being described as "a college student," Young speaks in this Rosie O'Donnell-esque pidgin accent. This intelligent young woman has lived in America for years, and she doesn't say any plurals or properly conjugate her verbs? ("Cleveland, why you no tell me you coming over? I need go get grocery from store!")

Giamatti, a great, lively actor, here is forced to sit around while a sub-"Mad TV" Asian caricature rattles on and on about the nuances of this retarded Hans Christian Anderson knockoff. One truly hideous, insane scene finds Giamatti forced to beg an old lady to tell him what's going to happen to him next. Young explains that, if her mother starts to see Cleveland as a little boy, she will open up and tell him the story. So he splashes milk all over his face, talks in weird baby-talk and curls up in the fetal position on the couch. Not funny, just strange. Perhaps Night is a Narf, unable to get to close to human beings and therefore unable to carefully observe their behavior for duplication in writing.

Okay, so I've talked a lot about why the film's almost unbearable to sit through, but I haven't really supported my initial claim that the film is Night's awkward tribute to himself. This really lies in the contrast between two of the film's most thin, generic characters: cynical film critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban) and optimistic dreamer Vick Ran (played by the writer/director himself).

Cleveland eventually discovers that Story has come to The Cove in order to inspire Vick Ran. In a plot development ripped off directly from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Story has learned that Vick Ran will one day write a book that will change the course of human history. His book, entitled "The Cookbook," will inspire a young boy who will one day grow into America's greatest President and a World Leader of grand significance. In perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious dialgoue exchange in 2006 cinema, Cleveland inquires as to the subject of Vick Ran's writing. Here is the response, spoken by M Night himself...

"I guess it's about all these cultural problems we've been having. Leaders and stuff..."

Well, that's just great writing. Bravo. Ben Hecht's got nothing on this guy. (Can I also ask what he means by "cultural problems"? Violent video games? Abortion? Blogofascism? It sounds like something a budding authoritarian would say. "I am writing a book about my final solution to The Cultural Problem!")

But before Cleveland figures out that M. Night Shyamalan is the greatest writer in the history of the world and the savior of all mankind, he first considers professional writer and critic Farber for the job.

Night has written Farber as a thin-skinned, elitist, bitter prig, a man who thinks he knows everything and who pre-judges everyone he meets and everything he sees. This can only be read as a direct response to the critics who savaged Night's previous film, thehalf-baked, overreaching allegory, The Village. That film was rightly ridiculed as a bloated, unconvincing waste of time, but apparently Night feels that it was a beautiful piece of art that deserved to sail through the world criticism-free. Apparently, those who found fault with his movie, and in writing no less, could only have done so out of a smug sense of superiority and personal vindictiveness.

Even if that were true, this depiction of critics as evil incarnate comes off as petty, and Night ruins the only scare scene in his whole fucking movie to get a cheap laugh off at the death of one such hated critic. Dude, have some fucking pride, okay? This whole film feels like Christopher Hitchens flipping off the audience on Bill Maher's show, like a self-styled Great Man unable to deal with the inevitable backlash his sneering bravado has wrought. Using your movies to haughtily snipe at your critics makes you look ridiculous, not bold. (Not being an authentic, paid film critic, I didn't really take the swipe personally, mind you. I'm perfectly open to mean-spirited, satirical depictions of film critics in theory. I mean, I love that show "The Critic," and it wasn't exactly a glowing portrait of the profession, what with all the fat bald loser jokes.)

So, yeah, just like his real-world counterpart, it's up to Night's character in the movie to ignore those stupid, blind critics and save the world using only the power of his writing. And , if we recall that, in the Shyamalan Universe of Signs, "fate" is actually divine ordination, then God himself is calling upon Vick Ran to educate the people. Really. The movie tries to make this point. Without getting too deconstructionist on you, consider the connections to Islamo-Judeo-Christian mythology:

The Universe's spiritual awareness sends a creature named Story to communicate a great Truth to a writer (called "a vessel" in the film itself!) Kind of like how Abraham, Moses and Mohammad were handed down God's Word. Expand this formulation just a bit and you get what I think is Night's real point - he is God's prophet on Earth. Not just his character in the film, but director M. Night Shyamalan. His movies express The Great Truth of the Universe to the people. And here I thought they were just genre flicks.

This movie offended every one of my senses. Even cinematographer Chris Doyle, who usually can be counted on to liven up even the most dreary of films, only gets the opportunity to craft a few distinctive shots. (I mean, most of the action takes place around a community swimming pool!) Even the special effects suck. This wolf, made of sticks and twigs and covered in moss, looks like a blurry, CG-enhanced dog. Worse yet, they lack any kind of genuine, tactile physical presence, they don't feel like they're really occupying space next to the tenants. In one scene, Giamatti faces one down in the countyard, and the scene isn't remotely scary in part because it just looks too fake.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great review ... I laughed throughout this arrogant, empty piece of piffle, but for no good reasons .. it was easily the worst movie I've seen all year .. how in the world did M. Night fall so far so fast?

Anonymous said...

Yes, M's movie this time around was a bit... arrogant, if I must say it, which was a dissappointment to all his fans of previous films he made. The worst part, I feel, though, was the utter--faith? I suppose?--gullability that all the characters just sort of accepted all these stories and tales as if it was The Answer, know what I mean? Hello, could somebody please ask the janitor why he believes all this? What basis in reality he claims? The suspension of disbelief was just way too over-the-top beyond anything he's ever done before. At leats in Unbreakable and Signs, he planted his story in reality. Like with the crop-circles and the brittle-bone-disease...

Sigh. One wonders if we should be hopeful that he learned his lesson from Lady in the Water or if it will make him even more arrogant to make another bad film...

Lons said...

Yeah, Jason, I know exactly what you mean. It's ludicrous that all of these people would just take Cleveland's word on this 'narf' nonsense.

In reality, they would humor him for a few moments before calling the police to report that a deranged psychopath in their apartment building has kidnapped a redhead and is holding her hostage in his shower while ranting and raving about buried keys and interpreters.

J.G. said...

i genuiniely mourn for society's true loss of real imagination. this film is a beautiful work of art, and it is interwoven with connections and references to this gaping hole in our general conciousness left by the violent, pointless films that litter our theaters in this day and age. i simply do not understand the lust for gratuitous violence and sexual exploitatious movie-making and the great reviews that they recieve for doing nothing but taking us nowhere but where we already are.

i suppose only people who have nutured a child-like innocence and imagination, will understand the true beauty of this film. until then folks, i guess you are better off watching fodder like "independence day" or "mission impossible".

Lons said...

Oh, JG, really...To be not only such a gullible milksop, but so POMPOUS and HAUGHTY and CONDESCENDING. Yes, "Lady in the Water" does not include bloody gore or wanton sexuality. But neither is it particularly imaginative. Anyone can make up a senseless story full of made-up words that doesn't tie together well or make sense. To wit:

Miles beneath the surface of the Earth, in a land called The Under Under, lives a race called The Groals, worms with arms and legs that walk upright like men. The Groals, connected as they are to the very molten heart of the Earth, know that humanity's relentless polluting of rivers and seas will cause the planet to expire from within. So they send a group of five brave messengers, The Trotorianus, to perilously climb up through the ten layers of the Earth's crust, fighting off dangerous Snalk Beasts and Electric Pollywogots, in an effort to warn people about the danger of maintaining SuperFund sites.

So, what do you say, JG? Feel like giving me a three picture deal? After all: no sex, no violence!

Raveshark said...

Well, after seeing the movie, "Lady in the Water", I was really hoping she could drown in her own water. I found the story was definitely geared toward children lacking any sense of reality. The story lended you the intelligence of a sleeping, bewildered, half-witted, shortbus riding, vocational tech student. I felt just like Giamatti on the couch, milk and all.

Myrtle said...

This will not actually have success, I consider this way.

balder-ghast said...

Well said.

people who studied literature will understand the tricks M Night was up to... issues of mythos structures, semiotics, semantics, systems of narratives and meta-narratives and Translation issues.

I believe the term "JG Scrunt" is in references to a real life writer or a person or persons espousing story-killing principles, while "tartutic" is a portmanteau of some sort.

People should look deeper, he is talking about a nation who has lost its culture, it is not about god or destiny, but a continuance, a story that can let us all dream, a mythic truth and pureness that our media, which we have relinquished the sacred duty to help us dream and refine our story as a race, had betrayed us all to the bank.

remember the last clue, the end credit song is "the times they are a-changing" , which is in itself a meaningful cipher to this tale with all its references to a time when people were lost in a nation at war, and needed a new mythos to guide them through the 60s aftermath.

Famudeedo Coventry said...

This is the single greatest comment in the history of anything