RIORI Redux: M Night Shyalaman’s “Lady In The Water” Revisited


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The Players…

Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffery Wright, Cindy Cheung, Sarita Choudhury and Bob Balaban, with Jared Harris, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt and…M Night Shyalaman (jeez).


The Story…

Nothing much ever happens at Cleveland’s apartment complex, his home and his work. Endless days consist of fixing leaky pipes and skimming out the pool. Sure, it’s a living, a simple existence and Cleveland wouldn’t really want it another way. Sort of. So when a water nymph pops up in said pool one night and tells him her desperate tale of escape and peril, his simple world is totally upended. To say the least.

Wait. What?


The Rant (2013)

Poor Night. After being slathered with praise for his Oscar-nominated opus The Sixth Sense, he just hasn’t been able to make lightening strike twice. Don’t get me wrong, his follow-ups Unbreakable, Signs, and to a lesser extent The Village were all fine films. But audiences are a fickle bunch. They want the goodies delivered twice, thrice and over and over again. Some directors can do this effortlessly with no question (Spielberg) regardless of whatever pap they churn out (Always, Hook, Jurassic Park 2 etc). But not poor Night, seemingly always living in a private hell of his own making, shadowed by ghosts and a psychic Haley Joel Osment.

Whilst The Sixth Sense was more or less a high concept Twilight Zone episode, Lady In The Water plays kinda on a fairy tale Night cooked up for his kids. How’s that for a healthy ego? Pretty damned good considering the literal ghosts at his back. F*ck the critics, I’m gonna base my next failure—ahem—feature on this!

Bad idea, dad

The circumstances described at butt end of the synopsis is usually when Night’s movies come off the tracks. Lady is no exception. I know it’s early in the film, but the sh*t gets really weird really quick, and not in a fun way, either.

I’ve found that with Night’s better films, the weirdness is creeping, not like being slapped in the puss with a dead haddock, all slimy and smelly. It’s called building tension, if not atmosphere. Sure, we can be dropped into the thick of it in, say, action movies. But with fantasies like Lady, we need a slow climb with some significant backstory. Since fantasy and its cousin sci-fi work in worlds of their own separate  from conventional drama and comedy, we need a steady climb in such a film from the mundane to the fantastic. Within context, of course.

(The following malarky is loaded with spoilers.)

A good example? The twin intros of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I say “twin” because the opening with the proto-humans struggles to survive and the eventual arrival of the Monolith then paired expertly executes backstory that will only reach fruition within context later in the film.

Millions of years later we have the metaphorical jump cut leading into the heralded, ballet-esque docking sequence between the shuttle and the space station, which serves as the second intro. In Kubrick’s version of 1999, space travel has become so routine that the miracle of tech doesn’t even touch Dr. Floyd or his companions imaginations. Being on their ISS is just work. It takes 20 more minutes of keen exposition until sh*t gets weird, and by that point in the film Kubrick has laid the groundwork for the proceeding sci-fi mystery.

(Spoiler alert over. You may now return your stewardess to her upright position.)

In sum, Night, you just can’t drop weird out of the sky and expect us to just roll along with it. Especially when you continue to lay on the weird all rich and thick-like. Both the audience and the cast can’t digest/process it very well.

Speaking of casting, I love Paul Giamatti, but it’s a plutonic relationship (he never returns my calls anyway). He’s far and away my favorite character actor. His work is almost always delightful, humorous and often separate from the film he’s in. He always gives it his all, regardless of the pap smear he’s gotten himself shackled into. This takes chutzpah. It takes a lot of gumption as an actor to throw yourself into a role for a film with a lot of rusty gears grinding against it. You gotta respect that. Especially if the actor is the only redeemable facet of the film.

Like I said earlier, Night conceived this movie on the basis of a story he made up for his children. Now, just because a tall tale enthralls young ears at home does not mean it will gain traction outside the house, especially considering the multiplex. I looked up the disparity of budget versus gross for Lady. Production budget, $70 million. Domestic total gross, a little over $42 million. Ouch. Even taking in the worldwide gross, this movie took in only a little over $2 million profit. That’s the price of certain actors’ trailers. In other words, a pittance. Even simpler: dud.

For all its canny flourishes, solid acting and outstanding cinematography, Lady is (if you’ll pardon the pun) dead in the water. And the funny thing is I had high hopes for this movie. The premise is just so mysterious and wonky, it had to provide some crazy fantasy elements to tickle the mind. Plus it stars Paul Giamatti! And Bryce Dallas Howard is naked! It’s something I wanted to recommend to others with great enthusiasm!

What went wrong?

Well first things first, I’d like to say (and he probably would, too) that M. Night Shyalaman is the Hitchcock of the supernatural film. That’s a fair comparison I think, if you consider The Master’s mid-period films of the Fifties. Night employs a lot of deliberate camera angles, centering elements of the scene to either drop hints about future plot points or to frame the actors (a good example of this in action is Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window). There are always elements of mystery in his films, paranormal or otherwise. And he always likes to make a cameo in each of his works. Or co-star, as it would appear in Lady. Nope, it wasn’t enough Night made a big budget movie based on a kiddie story, but he had to contribute large chunks of dialogue and plot progression as well. This sort of hubris might’ve offended a certain portion of the movie going audience. The phrase, “Who does he think he is?” seems apt. Just cuz it worked for Hitch, well, you know (that and Alfred never uttered a syllable of dialogue in his films. Smart).

Now don’t get me wrong on that paltry matter. Lady is superbly, well, filmed. It’s crisp and clean. The CGI is an accent, not filler. And the acting by the cast (save Night) is well done. It’s the damned plot that’s hair-brained. This film is so f*cking obtuse. It commits another cardinal sin in my book about bad films: it fails to maintain its interior logic. I know it’s a fantasy film, but watching the story progress is like watching someone patch up a leaking dam. There are corners cut to cram in each element of Night’s supposed fairy tale, seemingly shoehorned into being for the sake of…what? His vision? His kids’ expectations? The fact the audience would lap it up like so much melting ice cream?

Examples: Like all of Night’s films, there is that pervasive weirdness. It oozes from every pore of every frame. It usually works. But not weirdness for its own sake. Like I said, pieces of the story are introduced suddenly, thrown against the wall and maybe they’ll stick and forgotten to only later take up a different tack in the movie. Also, it’s odd (to say the least) how everyone in Cleveland’s apartment complex easily, unquestioningly goes along with Story’s, well, story in trying to make the fable come to life. Is it because Night’s moral of the movie is to say that some fantastic stories should be true? It’s as subtle as a fart at a funeral here. Way too much exposition takes up the second act, mostly consisting of a lot of mumbo-jumbo to allegedly push the fractured plot ever onward. If you’re paying attention, it becomes headache inducing. Again I say: hubris.

Lady In The Water is a waste of a good idea. In execution, it was a shambles. I think we might need more fantasy films at the box office nowadays. True escapism. And based on something else besides Tolkien. Small praise for Night in trying to fill this void, but he tried in a very clumsy fashion. Too bad.


Rant Redux (2019)…

As I update this installment, it’s only fair to note that Night’s films have had a renaissance of sorts over the past few films slowly sliding our of the murky haze of hubris-created schlock and getting on with it then; plots playing out like a malign version of The Twilight Zone where host Rod Serling was replaced by Screaming’ Jay Hawkins. Who remains dead the whole time yet can still sing. In simpler terms, the man’s work is earnestly creepy again, but he’s taking baby steps, keeping the cards against his chest. Better than no steps at all, right? Or knowing when to fold ’em.

I’ll quit the cheesy music metaphors now. Breathe easier.

So yeah, Night has been trying his darndest to stay off the glue and put a spell on us again. Everyone likes a comeback story, especially when it’s a comeback against insurmountable odds. Like your own ego and hubris, which ran riot all over Lady‘s production. However upon review Lady was a muddled mess, but it was an interesting muddled mess. Night was really reaching for something, but damned if I could figure out what.

The only lead I had into Night’s fever dream was that Lady was intended to be a “bedtime story for grown-ups.” Yes the story was concocted and adapted to screen by a bedtime fantasy he spun for his kids, but do we so-called adults really have a need for PG-13 rated Goodnight Moon? Night answered this in an affirmative affirmative. I only wished he was on massive hillocks of blow to justify this very interesting mess. And BTW, do his kids sleep well?

Lady was the penultimate tipping point for Night’s fall from grace. Crawling up one’s ass is a surefire way to alienate an audience. That screams the director in question forgot there’s an audience out there to consider. Since Night is more or less a mainstream cult director, when you dismiss your core fanbase you cut yourself off at the knees, Oscar nom regardless. I’d like to believe that the quiet lies the locusts told Night during Lady whispered, “You have almost lost the plot.” After came The Happening (the aforementioned implied ultimate nadir) and the sky fell in. And even after further mediocrity, Night readjusted his watch and said to himself, “Reel it in some, sport.”

I’d like to think, like to, that Lady was a red light implanted in his field of vision that planted the seed of doubt. Sure, this film is interesting, and stars Giamatti (EG: agent fired) and there’s a lot of mood. To quote Gertrude Stein: “There’s no there, there.” Lady was all artifice, and seriously that pissed off your fans who sided with you even through The Village.

Reeling it in, Lady wasn’t as off-putting the second time around. Sure, it still stunk, but upon a second spin it permitted a bit more perspective. I’ve often found rewatching Nights films always have deliberate Easter eggs to indirectly shove the story along…

…I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to resort to spoilers now, if only to make my point. And I do have one. For the lot of y’all who refuse to look behind the curtain avert your eyes and don’t think of a purple elephant…

Night drops a lot of hints in his movies, kind of like the “Hidden Pictures” feature in Highlights For Children (the most popular feature, BTW and don’t ask me how I know that. Maybe because I’ve been to the dentist). Anyone with a sharp eye may spot lots of “the hell?” moments in Night’s universe.

For example:

  • The color red indicating contrivance and/or deception in The Sixth Sense.
  • David Dunn in his shadowy poncho, cowl to cape in the train station testing his “powers” in Unbreakable.
  • The screaming inconsistencies about the alien invasion in Signs designed to fool everyone.

That last one is my favorite. Night misled us good big time with Signs. You’ve heard the clamor: “Why would aliens invade a planet that’s 80 percent water even thought the stuff’s toxic to them?” “Where’s the alien tech, like UFOs and anal probes?” “They have trouble with doors?”

All valid questions and massive plot holes with Signs…if you thought the movie was about an alien invasion (another spoiler: it wasn’t). In actuality Signs was about a demonic invasion.

The idea gained some traction over the movie sites, and the more one peeled away the onion, the more “huh” folks got. An article in The Imaginative Conservative (of all places) dissected Signs in such a convincing way that all of them plot holes are not plot holes but plot hints. In Night’s traditional style. So now, go ahead. Hit the link and read up. I’ll wait.

See? Sometimes knowledge creeps forth from some strange cross-wiring. Go fig.

Anyway, maybe there were connections missed with Lady. I missed them the first time out, as did most of bewildered America. In short, Lady was the most intractable movie Night ever made. As executed, it was spot on. And that’s it. Lady never seems to go anywhere, but the trip it takes you on is nothing less than interesting. That makes no sense, of course, but it follows in line with the yarn Night tries to spin: bedtime stories only exist to lull the listener into sleep. A haze. A fugue state. A torpor. To a place where you just give up. You submit. I’m still unsure if that was Night’s muse, but that was the overall effect on me. Just go with it, hope upon hoping it all makes sense, that there’s some reward. Like a good night’s rest. A satori, even.

Lady is a coherent mess. I’ll explain that: recalling what I spoke about in the Skyline installment regarding “interior logic” in movie making, Lady has all its ducks in the pond. The fantasy element is pretty wonky, can’t deny that, but Story’s story follows the rules. Within the context of the movie all makes sense. However (and this is a big however, hence the italics and parenthetical reference), Night’s delivery is f*cking redolent with ego, hubris and an incessant urging, pleading to the audience puh-leeze go along with this. It’s important. More important than hydrophobic fiends running riot, dammit!

We get it. We get it. Fantasy is important. It’s what imagination is made of. We don’t need Night’s ham-fisted direction (and story. And production. And acting) to remind us denizens of the Apple logo society. There’s no substance, no vitality, no sense of urgency a film like this deserves. Its delivery is cloying, its tension is weak and its acting is wooden. Yet it still is interesting. Interesting inasmuch as you cannot ignore the potential Lady is striving for. It’s sense of wonder is almost there, and you root for that to bloom, but it keeps fizzling out over and over again. This dynamic reminded me of how the stereotypical punk dresses to impress…almost. Spiky hair? Check. Leather studded jacket? Check. Sneer? Check. Footwear…Doc Marten’s? Nope, loafers. Oops! You were this close. Now let’s go slam into things at the Rancid gig.

Let’s hope this renaissance of Night’s movies keeps a-rollin’ and let Lady be his only albatross. It really sucks when a genuinely interesting film misses the mark, like here. Wasted potential. Crap. I’ll stand by my original verdict…


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: relent it. Simply put, Lady was a letdown. Still.


Some More Stray Observations…

  • “Put my mom on!”
  • Never have I ever seen Giamatti embarrass himself with such beauty.
  • “Is there anything further I can assist you with during my naptime?” Two days detention.
  • I think I realize I’ve been nurturing a man-crush on Wright.
  • “I’m 13B.” Is there such a thing as being anti-smug? Because I think Balaban nailed it.
  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Ask Joey.
  • “You have to believe that all this makes sense somehow.” Amen to that.
  • This was the first installment ever to have off-site links. I’ll fix the other pages. Promise, I guess.

Next Installment…

We reunite with Night again…again. The family Smith jaunts afar After Earth and we’ll be there for the return voyage. Again.

Again.

(Why didn’t I launch a mediocre, silly cat blog instead?)


 

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