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Classic Movie Review: 'Lady in the Water'

by Sean Patrick 11 months ago in movie
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If you're going to fail, fail spectacularly, the unintended motto of M Night Shyamalan and Lady in the Water.

With the release of Old, a strong success for M. Night Shyamalan, now seems like a good time to look back at his career. Thus, here's a reflection on Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's 2006 supernatural drama based on a bedtime story he told to his children. The film starred Bryce Dallas Howard, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright and M. Night Shyamalan himself.

I have seen bad movies and I have seen unmitigated disasters but I have never seen anything quite like Lady In The Water. I'm not saying Lady in the Water is the worst film I have ever seen, it most certainly is not that. But, Lady in the Water is one of the strangest and most annoying movies I have ever seen from a major mainstream filmmaker. That said, I’m honestly impressed with the sheer oddity of Lady in the Water and the fact that no one helping to make Lady in the Water tried to stop the madness. Did anyone other than M Night Shyamalan really think what they were making here was a good idea?

This attempt by Shyamalan to translate a bedtime story he told to his kids into a feature film is a stultifyingly awful piece of storytelling that reaches a realm of awful that is almost admirable. Someone once said if you're going to fail then fail big, well M. Night Shyamalan failed spectacularly with Lady in the Water, in terms of audience and critical response though, box office-wise, he still turned a profit, a small one.

Let’s try to explain this plot because… it’s a doozy. Paul Giamatti stars in Lady In The Water as Cleveland Heep, an apartment building superintendent whose life is turned upside down when he discovers Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming naked in the apartment building pool after hours. In encouraging the nude woman out of the pool, Cleveland ends up in the pool himself and Story rescues him. After she saves his life she explains that she is not human.

Story explains that she is a narf or sea nymph. Her role in the world is to inspire, like a Muse, and she has come to this apartment building specifically to inspire a writer to write a book that will eventually change the world. Once her purpose is served, Story can return to her magical world. However, standing in her way is another bizarre creature, and I am not making this up, a Scrunt. A scrunt is a wolf-like creature covered in mud and grass instead of flesh and hair. The bite of a scrunt is poisonous to a narf and only retrieving the mud code key can heal Story after she is attacked by a scrunt.

If that last paragraph doesn't make you giggle with cynical glee then maybe you are the audience for Lady In The Water. I on the other hand could not stop laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole endeavor. Shyamalan's idea for a bedtime story really is the kind of thing an imaginative person such as himself might tell his kids but he might have also had the good sense to recognize that it didn't translate outside of the realm of him and his kids. This is, quite obviously, not the kind of story that translates well to the adult world of the movie thriller and it is a wonder and a puzzlement that no one thought to tell that to Shyamalan.

That look you get when you've actually read the script for Lady in the Water

Well, actually, one person did. According to Shyamalan's own account in the book The Man Who Heard Voices, Disney executive and Shyamalan collaborator, Nina Jacobson told Shyamalan that she didn't get Lady in the Water, that she didn't buy the story or his ludicrous cameo as the writer at the heart of the story. Shyamalan reports being so devastated by Jacobson's criticism that he was left in tears and decided to immediately end his relationship with Disney, choosing to make Lady in the Water elsewhere.

Of the many problems with Lady In The Water is the abysmal dialogue. Delivered as if every word were the gospel respoke, Shyamalan's crafts scenes in which an exchange like "Nice meeting you" "It was nice to meet you too" are played by people who have never spoken those rather general phrases before. No one speaks like a human being in Lady in the Water, the dialogue is stilted, sometimes theatrical in flourish and other times muted as if the actor were only speaking lines to themselves and their practice was an actual take.

Regardless of being directed to speak like an adult who just learned words for the first time, Paul Giamatti is not terrible in Lady in the Water. Giamatti is so committed to the whole ridiculous enterprise of Lady In The Water that I could not help but marvel at his remarkable professionalism and talent. Watch the scene where Giamatti interrogates an Asian tenant who somehow knows what a narf is, the frustration written on his face could be his character's anguish or the actor's own expression of ‘what have I gotten myself into here.’ And yet, he delivers this moment with conviction and passion just as he does in every bizarre moment of Lady in the Water.

As for Shyamalan, as if Lady in the Water weren’t enough of an ego trip, the man literally thinks bedtime stories he makes for his kids should be made into a movie, Shyamalan makes the insufferable choice to cast himself as the writer of the book that will change the world. It’s one thing to be egotistical, it’s a whole other level of egotism to cast yourself as changing the world with your art. After putting us through Narfs and Scrunts and codes decoded via cereal boxes, don’t ask, Shyamalan, without a hint of self-awareness casts himself as the author of something that will change the world.

Disney studio executives looking at the screenplay for Lady in the Water

As if casting himself as changing the world via his art weren’t enough of an ego stroke, Shyamalan also used Lady in the Water to lash out at film critics. Actor Bob Balaban is cast in the role of Farber in Lady in the Water, a film critic whose advice to Cleveland in his search for help for Story turns out to be all wrong. So bad is the advice from Farber that he ends up getting himself killed. Farber, for those who don’t know, is the last name of famed New York film Critic Manny Farber whom Susan Sontag called “the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced.” I say that only to recommend reading Manny Farber rather than watching Lady in the Water.

Despite Lady In The Water being an absolute disaster I cannot escape the idea of wanting to respect it. I respect the fact that M. Night Shyamalan took on such a bizarre task as Lady In The Water and I respect the bravery of such a risky film. I love that though failure must have been quite obvious to everyone involved, obvious enough for Disney to have ended a seven year relationship with Shyamalan when he insisted on making this his next picture after the similar failure of The Village, they stayed the course and failed spectacularly. They failed with their hearts on their sleeves and their heads in the clouds.

If you are going to fail then fail spectacularly, fail catastrophically. Fail the way M. Night Shyamalan fails in Lady In The Water, a spectacularly misguided movie of grand ambition and bad ideas.


About the author

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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