Review: Lady in the Water
A mind-numbing work of staggering hubris, M. Night Shyamalan's Lady In The Water may be the most uniquely awful film of 2006. Though other painfully bad movies based on obnoxious, hackish formulae may come and go, Lady In The Water is almost innovative in its terribleness, and as a result it is most likely doomed to being used an example of how not to write a film in screenwriting classes for the rest of eternity. For one thing, the movie is at least 97% exposition, as Shyamalan's cast of characters attempt to understand a garbled fairy tale that has apparently come to life in an apartment complex on the outskirts of Philadelphia. In spite of the film's extreme, unrelenting pedanticism (it often seems like an annoying, condescending teenage boy attempting to explain the arcane rules of a dreary roleplaying game), the exposition fails to actually expose much of anything aside from the fact that this tale has no logic, emotional resonsance, or allegorical value, and is basically the most boring thing ever.
Making matters worse — far, far, far, far, far worse — is that Shyamalan has ditched his usual twist-ending shtick in favor of ham-fisted meta narratives that reveal him to be not only the most self-important and deluded filmmaker of his generation, but also the most petulant and vain. (And yes, I would consider Vincent Gallo to be of the same generation.) Not only does he cast himself as a writer whose words are fated to inspire a great and benevolent leader and photographs himself so reverently that he never appears onscreen looking anything less than heroic and wise, he indulges in a graceless, cringe-inducing diatribe against critics only tangentally related to the themes of the script. Bob Balaban, who to his credit is the most Balabantastic thing about this otherwise dire film, plays the critic, who is apparently meant to be unsympathetic, though this only seems to be established by the fact that he's a bit smug and complains about the loudness of his neighbors. After some terrible bit of dialogue taking his character to task for presuming to predict the actions of other people, Balaban is dispatched in the third act in a scene so embarrassingly on-the-nose in its verbalization of horror tropes that, entirely by accident, it is terrifying for all the wrong reasons.
Frustratingly, Balaban's cynical old critic is the closest thing to a believable human character in the entire film. Overstuffed with over the top twee oddballs who exist only as cutesy collections of quirks and seem entirely removed from recognizable human motivations, Lady In The Water shares much in common with Miranda July's similarly self-aggrandizing and critic-bashing Me And You And Everyone We Know. Shyamalan desperately wants the viewer to find his cast of weirdos charming and funny, but the man is utterly witless, and thus the characters come off as the result of forced eccentricity. Paul Giamatti sleepwalks through his starring role, going through the motions of his typical sad sack routine and unconvincingly playing the part of the hero. It's never quite understood why we are meant to expect that a lonely, shlubby widower who stumbles upon a pretty naked girl who fawns all over him and tries to cuddle at every opportunity would show absolutely zero sexual interest in her, and it's even weirder that no one ever stops for a moment to consider that maybe she's not a “nymph” and might actually just be some totally insane raver girl. For a cast of characters called upon to do some pretty weird things, no one ever calls into question the ridiculousness of the situation.
There's so much more that is bad about this movie, but it's hardly worth getting into. The pacing and editing is ponderous and entirely lacking in suspense; the cinematography is often poorly considered or flat-out hideous; there's a suspension-of-disbelief shattering sequence in which Giamatti spends about seven consecutive minutes underwater without any sort of breathing aparatus; Bryce Dallas Howard is forced to spout such awful jargon-packed lines of dialogue that you begin to think that Natalie Portman had it easier doing her Star Wars films. I could go on, but I fear that listing off all of Lady In The Water's numerous peculiarities may give you the impression that it could actually be an interesting film, which it only could be if you are fascinated by ego-fueled disasters.