Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lady in the Water (hey, you saw it coming...)

For the relative peace of the universe, I am going to steer clear of the topic of dress code, movie approval, and video gaming. Like I said, those of you who want my opinion can come have a cold beer in my apartment with me.

So, it comes to the inevitable topic of Lady in the Water. (Come on, I had to...after Emily beat me to the punch...) Plus, I sort of have a difference of opinion on this one, so it might create some good talking points about the movie's relative strengths/weaknesses. Which is all a good movie review is supposed to accomplish anyway, I guess. Also, I encourage you to not read what follows if you don't want me to give away any plot details.

I didn't like Lady in the Water. As much as it hurts me to say this, the critics really had a point this time. This is intensely difficult for me to stomach, for, as an avid fan of the entire Shyamalan canon to date, it seems that our esteemed Philadelphian was thinking that he might as well do what the critics all imagined he did, for once.

Lady in the Water claims to be a fantasy/bedtime story, and the film's animated opening sequence illustrates a decided departure from Shyamalan's previous style and substance, which one would expect from him. So far, so good. However, in order for a child's fantasy story to work as such, a departure from Shyamalan's usual habits of extreme naturalism in tone is required. From the very first live-action frame, this was not the case. The director attempts to create an extremely stylized fantasy situation in which a nymph-like creature called a narf has been sent from the "Blue World" in order to cause mankind to see more clearly. The problem lies in the simple fact that Shyamalan refuses to make the fundamental choice between the broader, more abstract strokes required for effective fanstay, and his usual strict realism. In Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, and The Village, this realism only added to their power, by taking romantic, broad situations and themes and introducing them into a setting of the strictest realism. In Lady in the Water, the two irreconcilable elements never marry. The movie feels mechanical and disjointed, and the plot never does more than simply movie the film along its set coordinates. I never felt particularly motivated or even interested in the fate of Story, Heep, or even the universe, about the fate of which we are expected to be apprehensive.

Shyamalan's beef with the critics also takes a leading role in the film, both figuratively and literally. Like many, I was unable to reconcile the director's recent battles with prominent critics over The Village with the fact that he cast himself in Lady in the Water as the misunderstood artist who was destined to save a nation. Coincidence? Believe what you like, but I am prone to doubt the objectivity (and maturity) of such a move. Especially when Shyamalan goes on to juxtapose his character with an evil film critic character, who fouls up the state of the universe before being torn to shreds by a mythical beast. Shyamalan's self-casting might be a forgivable offence, if the movie's spat with its resident buffoon/critic didn't take such a long, painful detour from the plot. I'm angry about the way the critics cast aside Shyamalan's talents, but this is simply playing into their hands.

Perfomances were more or less on the mark. Giamatti was excellent, but hell, it's Giamatti. We've come to expect no less from him Working very hard with bad dialogue and a soporific performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, he really did make the character of Cleveland Heep come alive. Shyamalan, who has about as much screen time as Howard, was servicable if not memorable. Bob Balaban could have been acceptable. Let's just say that my disappointment with him arose not from the shortcomings of his performance.

Anyway, there it is, for what it's worth. Feel free to disagree. I'm open to convincing.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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