The myth that M. Night Shyamalan is the new Alfred Hitchcock or even the old one is something that the director himself seems eager to cultivate. It reminds me of the publicity sponsored by Brian De Palma around the time of “Dressed to Kill” appointing himself heir to the throne of Hitchcock and labeling himself the “master of the macabre”. As time wore on, the label proved to be an albatross around De Palma’s neck and is one of the major reasons why I believe this truly great filmmaker is not more respected in this country. When “Saturday Night Live” targets your perceived pretension with a trailer parody called Brian De Palma’s “The Clams”, it’s time to re-evaluate your image.
It’s this obsession with personal image that has led Shyamalan down a very strange path. His increasingly large cameos in his own films, American Express commercials, and that absurd Sci-Fi channel documentary, “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan” have all contributed towards the creation of an image less like Alfred Hitchcock and more like William Castle: a master not of suspense or storytelling, but rather of gimmicks and carnival barking. Moreover, all of this arm waving and tap dancing has done nothing for the work itself. With all of the hype and “mystique”, Shyamalan seems to be demonstrating nothing more than the law of diminishing returns, both artistically and financially. What began as a specific style well applied to a specific story in “The Sixth Sense” became the model for a series of increasingly self conscious and self aggrandizing arty thrillers which seemed to be focused on decreasing logic while increasing the font size of the director’s on-screen credit.
“Lady in the Water” is Shyamalan’s attempt to wind back the clock to the days before the release of “Unbreakable”, when Shyamalan felt like he was in control of his work and could mix the needs of the box office and his audience’s expectations with themes and ideas that interested him. “Lady” is the tale of a “Madame Narf” (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is sent on a mission from the Blue World to inspire a human whose book will one day save the world. A gallery of mythic healers, symbolists and guardians are then needed to protect her from the villainous “Scrunts” and return her safely to the Blue World in the claws of a giant eagle called the “Great Eatlon”.
What worked in “Unbreakable” dies a slow, painful death onscreen in “Lady in the Water”. Shyamalan is so concerned with getting across the “brilliant” concept that he is telling a story that is really about the very nature of storytelling centering on a character actually named “Story”, that he forgets to actually write a screenplay with characters and motivations that will involve the audience. “Unbreakable” was also concerned with this kind of metafiction, but it allowed the audience to work that out for themselves while we were sinking into the story of a man who learns he has powers above and beyond that of common men. Shyamalan worked hard in that film not to strain credulity and to allow us to suspend our disbelief. He doesn’t even begin to create that suspension here.
What is most annoying about “Lady in the Water” is that no one, not for one second, ever considers the possibility that nothing magical is actually occurring. What’s most troubling is that the material is right there for a better movie, and it’s hard to imagine that Shyamalan didn’t see it himself. The film starts out silly and just gets sillier. A couple of film reels later, you begin to laugh every time you hear about a “narf”,”scrunt” or a “tartutic”. What’s even more outrageous is that Shyamalan tries to pass this absurd stuff off as some kind of old Korean legend, which it is not. It comes completely from the depths of his own mind.
However, Shyamalan has cast the film well. Paul Giamatti plays the building manager of The Cove, the gray apartment block setting that is the single location of “Lady in the Water”. Giamatti is unfortunately given the unlikely name of Cleveland Heep, which puts thoughts in the mind that Shyamalan was thinking of a more Spielberg kind of entertainment, perhaps titled, “Cleveland Heep and the Lady in the Water”. Regardless of the oddball name and wooden dialogue, Giamatti gives another excellent performance, this time in a lead role which requires him to do the heavy lifting. He carries the movie effortlessly and will hopefully get more chances in the future to demonstrate the real sincerity and humble heroic nature he showcases here.
Bryce Dallas Howard has less to do as the cryptic title character, but her pale features and soft voice make her perfect for the role. Everyone else, from Jeffrey Wright to Mary Beth Hurt and Jared Harris, is totally wasted on roles that in many cases are much smaller than that of “Vick”, the visionary writer whose ideas will one day inspire the world, a role played by the director himself, whose very presence onscreen throws you out of the story. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock playing the role of Detective Arbogast in “Psycho”. You wouldn’t be able to watch the movie. Every time he appeared, the audience would giggle and leave the movie’s reality behind. For a director so obviously concerned with his image in the real world, playing a messianic character in his own movie is the worst choice possible.
M. Night Shyamalan (director) / M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay)
CAST: Paul Giamatti …. Cleveland Heep
Bryce Dallas Howard …. The Lady – Story
Jeffrey Wright …. Mr. Dury
Bob Balaban …. Harry Farber
Sarita Choudhury …. Anna Ran
M. Night Shyamalan …. Vick Ran