Cinema Signal:

The Man Who Heard Voices:
How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale

by Michael Bamberger


. "The Lady In the Water"

Sorry to have to report this, but everything you may have heard about this movie is true -- in concept and execution, it's well over the top. Despite writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's attack on Disney for refusing to back it, they made a wise decision.

For a director whose formerly easily-green-lighted projects were based on late act twists and surprises, the only one here is how far into a morass of unbelievability and warped sense of human behavior he steps into. The kindest thing I can say about it is that it started out with moody and suggestive imagination.

After establishing a bedtime legend that there are water creatures who, through the ages, have tried to make contact with land dwellers and be accepted by them, only to be refused and rejected, they are now trying again. This takes the shape of a lovely "Narf" named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose contact with land dwellers turns out to be an appearance in the pool of apartment dwellers.

Manager Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) has some strict rules and, one of them, is that there's to be no swimming after 7 PM. Yet there are signs that someone is breaking that rule. When this naughty interloper finally makes her presence known one night, (with stuttering Heep having an "Aha!" moment when he spots her) we soon get it that this is not an ordinary rule-breaker.

Taking in the poor, lovely, naked girl and becoming instantly enchanted by her, Heep learns her name and what form of non-humanity she is. As a secretly toubled man himself, he identifies with her needs which are both mystifying and dangerous. Deducing that her existence is subject to the rules of a fairy tale, he sets out to poll all his tenants for knowledge of it, until hot student Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), the personality energy of the apartment complex in the early going, recognizes the term "Narf" and tells Heep that her strict, aloof mother (June Kyokolu) has mentioned it. She arranges an awkward meeting.

Almost completely unforthcoming, the elderly Asian is reluctant to speak of the tale with her landlord whom whe regards as a stranger and an alien. But, she does divulge a few general ideas of it, which are enough for Heep to begin trying to help his red-haired nympth of the sea to pursue her destiny. As Mrs. Choi later spits out more and more detail of the myth, it comes together that everyone --yes, every last tenant-- has a functional part in the drama.

As this process gets more confused and complex, all participants become connected by stepping into the role they've been cast for, extras included. One of the most critical role is that of the only person able to subdue the dog-like demons who block Story's path back to to her spirit home and this person is the most difficult to find.

The mass involvement with nary a critical, selfish or uncooperative word from anybody gets sillier and sillier by the frame until it's manifest that there's no reality here at all--not even as a frame of reference to recognizable human behavior. It's a supernatural puzzle from start to finish with all these characters little more than an orchestra of zombies in thrall to the director's gloomy baton.

When you're making up a romantic fable or fairy tale to tell a child at bedtime (it indeed "began as an impromptu bedtime story for Shyamalan's two young daughers" according to the press notes, which never lie) the most difficult part is in preserving enough logical consistency to keep it credible. This is an instance of a story that we hope will put the little ones to sleep long before their questions become embarrassing and unanswerable. Some writers paint themselves into a corner. M. Night has drunk himself into supernatural intoxication.

This also an instance of a movie never living up to the mysterious intrigue of its poster art. The blue-green image of Howard staring benignly and ethereally at you from the depths of her nether world is fascinating enough, by itself, to pull people past the panning and into the theatre. Some people are gluttons for punishment. I know. I'm one of them.

One positive thing I got from this flight into uncontrolled fantasy is the way Howard conveys the otherworldliness of her natural beauty. The wide open, baleful eyes, colorless skin and saffron hair is enough to ensure stardom, all other contributing factors aside. And she stares wordlessly a lot here. Okay, I'll buy the poster.

So far, her career mark has depended to a considerable extent on Shyamalan's recognition of her special quality, which he well exploited in "The Village." (In my review of it I remarked that her remarkable presence nearly saved the movie.) We now wait for her Gwen Stacy character in the upcoming "Spiderman 3."

On the other hand, Shyamalan defies logic and other potential restraints by creating the character of Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), a reclusive, haughty film and book critic just hired and brought to the city by the local newspaper. First, one wonders why they wouldn't have given him an advance so that he could live in more comfortable and private quarters. Before the film is out, however, the question of what his role here is, and it has nothing to do with a functional part in the legend. M. Night apparently had a sixth sense about the critical shredding his film was going to receive from his critics and thought it smart to do a little advance shredding of his own. The character of Harry Farber is M. Night razzing us first. But, he's not going to get rid of us so easily.

Finally, here's a surprise... I may be the only one around who thinks so, but in all honesty, I see possibilities for Shyamalan as an actor. I actually enjoyed his sympathetic portrayal of Vick Ran and his dark, interesting look. So, Night, all may not be forgiven, but I'd green light you to pursue acting roles outside your own productions. You might just have a little time available about now.

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Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti
"The Lady In the Water" break the rules of the poor, stuttering apartment manager.
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