The Lady in the Water
Reviewed by William Mingin
24 August 2006
In an apartment house in or near Philadelphia (we never go beyond its grounds), the nebbishy super, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) discovers that someone has been swimming in the pool off hours, to say nothing of getting hair in the filter. When he doggedly sets out after the culprit, he encounters Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a sort of nymph, called a "narf," from "The Blue World."
The narf has come to inspire a human, as they do from time to time, to some kind of world-changing spiritual breakthrough, after which she will return to The Blue World. When she finds the person, the inspiration automatically occurs, something between the activity of a Muse and the wordless transference of Zen mind.
Unfortunately, a feral, half-plant, wolf-like creature, a "scrunt," is determined to kill her before she gets back home, and though the scrunt is going against the rules, strangely enough the apelike Tartutek, who enforce the rules, don't show up to muzzle it. So it's up to Heep to help her, along with other of the apartment-dwellers, many of whom have been drawn there unconsciously, with foreordained roles to play in Story's story, as Guardian, Healer, Symbolist, etc.
If all that seems tiresome and forced, it seems that way in the movie, too.
The Lady in the Water starts with a voice-over background story, minimally animated, both unconvincing and gracelessly told, flaws that mar the writing throughout. We are almost always aware that this is all made up. Of course, all fantasies are made up, but we shouldn't be aware of that while watching, unless the creator has a reason to make us aware, and M. Night Shyamalan does not. Rather than being suspended with our disbelief in a fictional web woven with authority, we keep slipping through holes.
Evidently Shyamalan writes without helpful input from others; at least, that would explain his invented names, both generic and individual. Our hero is a good-hearted shlump named Cleveland Heep—a heap from a notoriously shlumpy town (think Drew Carey, Harvey Pekar). Outside of Dickens, Restoration comedy, or farce, waggishly illustrative names should be avoided; they poke holes in a story's believability.
If there had been another writer, when Shyamalan said, "Hey, let's call the nymph a 'narf,'" the other could have said, "What's that, a cross between a nerf and a fart?", and then they could have thought of a good name.
That goes double for "scrunts."
The film is made for adults, but is based on a bedtime story told by Shyamalan to his daughters, and has a lot in common with other overly symbolic, precious, labored stories littering the past of children's literature, straining at childlike innocence and failing, with their awful names, lack of intuitive logic, and tin ear for the truths of experience. But the best comparison with this film is Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (1909), an adult work based in childlike fantasy (also adapted for children as a play and as a film), by turns twee and inane in its attempts at philosophy and inspiration. The 1940 film, starring Shirley Temple, has not been seen by this reviewer, but here's a sample of the dialogue, courtesy of IMDb (which, with delightful meanness, quotes pages of the stuff):
Tylette [a cat—played by Gale Sondergaard!]: Why don't you go to the Land of Luxury? There's plenty to eat there. Everything you could think of.
Mytyl [a little girl—played by Shirley Temple]: Do you think we'd find the blue bird there?
Light [uhm—visible radiation]: No, dear. I don't.
Tylette: Why not? They'll have everything they want there. Where would be a better place to look for the blue bird?
Mytyl: We might find the blue bird there.
Light: Very well. Go there if you want.... But don't stay too long. It's never wise to spend too much time in the Land of Luxury.
In the play, Light takes Mytyl and Tyltyl (a boy) to the Palace of Happiness, where they speak to the larger Luxuries: the Luxury of Being Rich, of Satisfied Vanity, of Drinking when you are not Thirsty and Eating when you are not Hungry ("they are twins and their legs are made of macaroni"), of Knowing Nothing, of Sleeping more than Necessary, etc. (pp. 166-9). The Bluebird ("that is to say, the great secret of things and of happiness," p. 131) is not to be found there.
Mutatis mutandis, this is about the level of Shyamalan's thought and writing.
Besides having a tin ear, Shyamalan is guilty of a carefree slackness in handling the details on which suspension of disbelief thrives. Heep mostly learns about narfs (Story can't tell him directly) from a fairy tale told by a Mrs. Choi, a tenant who speaks only Korean (her daughter translates). "Narf," etc. seem to match the terms in the tale, though they sound much less something filtered through Korean than like something made up by an American writer. It's this kind of attention to detail that in Signs (2002) gave us aliens who could be destroyed by water, yet moved unharmed though the humidity of a Pennsylvania summer; and who had the technology to travel between planets or galaxies, but couldn't wield a screwdriver or axe to open a wooden door.
Worse yet, the story Mrs. Choi tells is, word for word, borne out in the movie. Whatever the original encounter that gave rise to this fairy tale, whatever the process of its oral transmission, there's been no alteration from the exact, literal reality Heep encounters.
The story's weaknesses aren't limited to the fantastic elements. Does Shyamalan really not know that the despairing or cynical or sad man, alone and hiding from life (the lowly Heep was once an MD) because his wife and children were murdered by a criminal intruder is a hopeless cliché?
Whatever his failures as a writer, Shyamalan is a skilled director working with talented actors. His films all look good. But here he uses a lot of tight close-ups, so many that it gets claustrophobic. You end up feeling like you've had an intimate relationship with Paul Giamatti—not a happy feeling for most. But Giamatti does give an admirable performance as a sad, warm-hearted, capable man purposely evading life, almost making up for his failure to portray the real Harvey Pekar, which ruined American Splendor (2003). Bryce Dallas Howard, the best thing about The Village (2004), has the thankless job of looking otherworldly while uttering banalities. Some other good actors, such as Bill Irwin, are underused and have negligible impact on the story or the viewer.
Since even good children's stories can have the cringe effect on adults, one has to wonder why Shyamalan made this into a movie for adults. One suspects it's because of its Purpose.
A clue to that Purpose is the narf's name, "Story" (another bad choice), which takes us into metafictional territory. She is a muse, an inspirer, who appears to a writer, Victor Ran, whose inspired book is to change the world for the better. Ran is played by the writer and creator of this film ... who evidently views the film as an agent of change. In other words, the "story" of this movie has come to Shyamalan to inspire him to a work of art (the film itself) that, like his character's book, will change the world. Evidently he expects viewers to be inspired to greater faith, joy, and love by having an actor playing an imaginary creature baldly state, "Every being has a purpose" and "You are all connected." The egotism this interpretation implies is so astounding, one might be tempted to dismiss it as labored or unfair ... until the credits roll to a slow and sappy rendition of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
Well, they're not going to change the way the film would have it, through the effect of a book on a President, "a great man" (in our political system, mutually contradictory terms), and definitely not by means of this movie. Perhaps a good cause can be well-served by bad art, but not by this unconvincing ode to conceit.