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Lady in the Water

Shyamalan’s Decline as a Storyteller Continues

From the first words uttered by an offscreen voice over a black background animated by stick figures, M. Night Shyamalan's (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village) latest fantasy/drama (or "fairy-tale for grown-ups" as the ads initially claimed), Lady in the Water stumbles and never recovers, thanks to a screenplay that practically screams “first draft” or, in this case, a bedtime story Shyamalan made up for his daughters one night.

Call it the George Lucas Effect: a filmmaker garners fame and fortune (plus good press) early in his career and before long, said successful filmmaker thinks himself immune from any and all criticism. The result looks something like Lady in the Water, a hodge-podge of sloppy, lazy writing, an incoherent storyline, and stereotypical, clichéd characters no one’s going to care about.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a down, but not quite out, maintenance man/building superintendent at an apartment complex called "The Cove". The Cove is home to a motley assortment of renters, immigrants, stoners/slackers, a workout freak, senior citizens on fixed incomes, and the newest resident, Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), a film and book critic new to Philadelphia. Cleveland’s life gets upended when he discovers a young, naked woman swimming in the pool after closing time.

He dives in after her, but instead gets saved by the mystery woman. He awakens to a stranger in his cottage. Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) identifies herself as a sea nymph on a mission to reawaken a world-transforming writer. Once done, she can return to her water world on the wings of an eagle (literally). But something malevolent with red eyes is hiding in the grass and it’s waiting to pounce.

Narfs, Scrunts, Madame Narf. Say what? Narfs, Scrunts, and Madame Narf are the uninspired words Shyamalan came up with to describe a sea nymph, a magical wolf-like creature that can hide in grass, and the chosen leader of the sea nymphs, respectively. Well, make that singular, since Shyamalan gives us only one sea nymph, the "lady" in the title, and just one Scrunt (we do get three of a third type of supernatural creature, who collectively function as “dei ex machina”). Over the course of Lady in the Water, we learn little about the sea nymphs, where they make their home, their numbers, or their culture (outside of the fact that they like to collect trash and make shrines from it).

Character wise, Story has little to do but look frail and weak and huddle in a shower (because, well, she's a sea nymph and can't be out of water for too long). With little effort, she convinces Cleveland that she's really a sea nymph. Adding implausibility to improbability, Cleveland convinces the Cove's residents of Story’s authenticity on blind faith. Why? Because Shyamalan's haphazardly written screenplay demands it. Outside of Cleveland, a writer, Vick (Shyamalan in a passable cameo) and the writer’s sister, Anna (Sarita Choudhury) she has no immediate impact on the other characters' lives and even when she does have an impact as, for example, on restarting the writer's project, we learn little about the project, only that it will have a vaguely defined influence on an unidentified world leader. Who knows? Maybe the writer’s project be the next Celestine Prophecy.

Outside of Cleveland’s clichéd backstory (he's haunted by a personal tragedy) and equally clichéd stutter, the other residents of the Cove are shallow, ranging from the colorfully eccentric to the borderline offensive. To round out his characters, Shyamalan cast himself in a central role, gave his character a strong-willed, live-in sister, and a mean writer’s block. Adding stoner/slackers and shut-ins are one thing, but indulging in racial stereotypes (e.g. heavily accented Latinos) is just one more indication that Shyamalan put little thought or effort into a screenplay already heavy with clumsy, awkwardly driven dialogue and exposition.

If Lady in the Water doesn’t deliver story wise, what about suspense or horror? Sure, it has several suspense-filled sequences, but Shyamalan shows little interest in creating or sustaining dramatic tension. Instead, Shyamalan is more interested in playing word or chess games with his characters and how they relate to solving Story's convoluted, ultimately absurd predicament. Pushing the horror/suspense angle won't do much to save Lady in the Water once moviegoers realize that the film is woefully short on tension, suspense or scares.

Lady in the Water also confirms what critics and moviegoers have long suspected: while Shyamalan the director may be worth watching. With his off-center framings, long takes, and refusal to use shot-reverse shots for dialogue scenes, Shyamalan obviously wants to mainstream a style usually associated with European art films. Shyamalan the screenwriter, however, needs to take a remedial course in Storytelling 101. Either that or Shyamalan should start working with another writer. Unfortunately, Lady in the Water may just be the film that turns audiences away from the Shyamalan brand.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars