In the world of M. Night Shyamalan, there always seems to be people who love his flicks, and people who hate them. In terms of critics, they have apparently declared war on the guy for his perceived failure with The Village.
I am neither a critic, nor a fan of Shyamalan. I don’t particular care for all his movies, but I also don’t get into the hype surrounding the man. That documentary hoax, this new book concerning his fallout with Disney, all that nonsense. What’s any of that got to do with a movie?
So I’m here to just talk about Lady in the Water. Personally, I thought it was his best film since Unbreakable. It’s a lighthearted fantasy with colorful characters and dialogue. Its anchor is Paul Giamatti, the instantly likable actor whose made a career out of playing the wounded average guy. If nothing else, Shyamalan is a master at casting his main leads for his films.
In this case, Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, a superintendent for an apartment building outside Philadelphia. One night he encounters a mysterious woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming in the building’s pool. The woman turns out to be a Narf, a mystical being who has come to our world in order to find a writer whom she must help inspire. But that part proves quite simple. Getting her back to her world, however, proves far deadlier, as a vicious beast from her world has broken the laws of her kind and sets out to destroy her before she can return to her people. It is then up to Cleveland, and the collection of unique individuals who live in the apartment building, to help get her home.
In terms of Shyamalan’s previous films, there is something unique, yet familiar, to Lady in the Water. His usual themes of people looking for purpose in their lives continues, and in that way, Lady is very similar to Signs. However, the humor is much heavier than any of his previous films. This isn’t a dark, brooding movie full of sad people like The Village or Unbreakable. Lady in the Water is light and fun. It’s far more of a happy movie, which makes it unique (for Shyamalan), and that was something that I enjoyed.
Much of the humor in this film comes from the colorful collection of misfits who populate “The Cove”, Shyamalan’s fictional apartment building. There’s the Korean mother and her punk-loving daughter; the man obsessed with lifting weights — but only with his right arm; a cabal of pot smoking stoners and a woman who loves to share her husband’s most intimate secrets.
While I enjoyed it, I can sort of understand why many people may not. There is a silliness to the whole thing, with the mixture of fairy tale like fantasy inserted into a rather plain and real world. But that’s what Shyamalan’s films are always about. I also think critics are often panning the film largely because of two things — the silly hype surrounding Shyamalan and the fact that he basically lampoons critics in Lady in the Water. Critics don’t like to be made fun of, and they are rather strongly parodied here.
In fact, it is Shyamalan’s use of the “critic” — played by actor Bob Balaban — that also makes Lady in the Water different. He breaches the fourth wall, as it were, using the critic to remind audiences that this is a movie and pokes fun at the conventions of movies, such as story structure and how characters are often used. Personally, I thought it was funny.
That’s not to say that Lady in the Water is a perfect film, it is not. There’s an opening animation that explains the mythology of the fairy tale world that was rather unnecessary, and Shyamalan is honestly not a good enough actor to be playing such a large role. He also sets himself up for criticism for the very role he chooses to play. The ending was far more satisfying than I feared, but at the same time, he uses a similar trick he did with Signs that I found more frustrating than artful.
For those of you heading out to the theaters this weekend, I hope you enjoy Lady in the Water as much as I did. If you don’t, that won’t necessarily surprise me, either.