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Lady in the Water

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 05/08/07 06:23:05

"In defense of Shyamalan."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you put a cloddish, stuck-up film critic in your movie, you're more or less begging for vicious reviews, and 'Lady in the Water' got 'em far and wide. My brothers and sisters in the reviewing trade can be touchy sometimes.

I approached M. Night Shyamalan's fable with an open mind, and ended up enjoying it. Perhaps it's because I caught it on DVD, and was able to watch it in the recommended stance: curled up on a bed under a blanket, hearing a bedtime story, as the film's protagonist Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is obliged to do on an old Chinese woman's couch when he wants to find out what the hell is going on.

Cleveland schleps through life as the super of a Philly apartment building loaded with offbeat characters. He has a past life he'd just as soon forget, and he's settled into unsurprising, unchallenging drudgery. Someone has been swimming in the community pool after hours, and Cleveland soon finds out who a "narf" named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a sea nymph trying to contact a writer whose book will one day change the world.

Shyamalan plays the part of that writer. Really, it's as if he were painting a big red target on his film. Who is this egotistical asshole? Does he think his spooky summer flicks are going to bring about world peace? A closer reading of the film, though, suggests that Shyamalan's character is nothing special; he's only a conduit. As are all writers, and part of the point of Lady in the Water is that creativity can't be controlled; it comes unbidden and strange, like a narf in your pool or the grass-enshrouded "scrunts" who hunt the narfs. (This is a good time to point out that the people who hooted so disdainfully at terms like narf and scrunt apparently have no problem with terms like jedi and hobbit.)

As Cleveland gathers an unlikely group around Story, Shyamalan's style remains sedate and thoughtful, pulling us all along into the mystery. Everyone has to figure out how to get Story what she needs, and the movie becomes a metafiction like Adaptation, it's a story about a story writing itself. The film critic (Bob Balaban) is useless in this context, because he brings a jaded, seen-it-all perspective, when what's needed is the purer ardor of a child hearing a story or making one up. The movie is not Shyamalan's broadside against every film critic everywhere it's part of the film's theme that man has forgotten how to listen to the uncanny. The other characters treat the story (or Story) as if it were exciting, unpredictable real life as indeed it is, to them while the critic treats life like an entirely predictable story. And let's not pretend there aren't arrogant, everything-sucks critics out there that you just want to kick in the teeth and ask why they even bother writing about things they so obviously consider beneath them.

The rules come fast and thick the Guardian must stand here, the Guild must join hands there, while Story awaits the Eagle but the plot remains storybook-simple: Story needs to Go Home, like many another strange visitor to mundane human life. The tone of Lady in the Water is set right off the bat, with a crudely animated sequence that recalls the opening of Watership Down. And if the rest of the movie had been animated, it might've gotten an easier time of it. But then you'd miss Paul Giamatti's delicate work (I admire how he hides his face from the camera in his early emotional moment with Story), and the rogue's gallery including Freddy Rodriguez as a goofball toning up one half of his body, and Mary Beth Hurt as the animal-loving Healer, and the luminescent Bryce Dallas Howard, whose Story could inspire protective feelings in a stone.

Taking a page from Shyamalan's own self-sabotaging stance of writing himself the role of mankind's savior and throwing in a dorky film critic, I'll say this much: Ignore the film critics on this movie. Yeah, I am one. Which means I'm telling you to ignore me, too. Just see it for yourself and decide whether it pleases you. If it does, I can say at least one critic agrees with you.

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