Published at: July 20, 2006, 6:57 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Story is looking for a writer.
But... is that the synopsis of LADY IN THE WATER, or is it the review?
There’s only one way to approach a new film by M. Night Shyamalan at this point. Tune everything out. The hype, both positive and negative, that surrounds every move of his these days is crushing even the possibility of pleasure out of the releases. I think a film like THE VILLAGE works best as a stealth bomb. Something you start watching without really knowing what it is. Something that just sort of unfolds, and by the time you get a handle on it, you’ve been pleasantly shaken up and twisted about. Sure, it’s a TWILIGHT ZONE episode. That’s Night’s thing when you boil it down and strip away all the pretentious “I have the secret to filmmaking” twaddle from the medicine show he runs to turn himself into a myth. He does big-budget TWILIGHT ZONE movies. I have no doubt that if he’d been working in ’82, he would have been one of the filmmakers who was asked to contribute a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Not every episode of TZ ended with a twist, but they all tended to moralize and place fantastic elements into mundane settings, two things which are increasingly obvious as signatures of Shyamalan’s work.
I’ve never written a negative review for an M. Night Shyamalan film here on the site. Based on the mail I get about him, you’d think I had talked shit about his mother or something, but it’s just not true. The worst you can say about any review I’ve written for him so far is that it was mixed. Sure, I’ve held his films to hard critical standards because I think he’s got real talent, but I hold many directors to the same sort of scrutiny. If I think someone’s really got the goods, I invest in whether or not they’re really connecting. That class of ’99, all the guys who sort of came of age that year like Spike Jonze or Sam Mendes or David Fincher or Brad Bird or PT Anderson, or even Shyamalan... I had high hopes for all of those guys after that year.
They made me believe in American movies again. They convinced me that strong personal visions could find a place in the corporate entertainment landscape. I saw ’99 as a promise, and each year, I can’t help but ask myself, “Is that promise being fulfilled?”
Let’s start with a given. Something that I think it hard to dispute on a purely technical level. M. Night Shyamalan is a very good director. No doubt about it. He’s got an excellent eye, and he’s obviously very good with his actors.
At times, he’s also been a very effective writer. It was his gift with language, the economy of what he did on the page, that made him so distinct as a writer. If you can get hold of SIXTH SENSE or his draft of STUART LITTLE or LABOR OF LOVE, check out the way those scripts read. Check out the simplicity of how he suggests a whole world by saying so little. He was pretty much every writer’s favorite writer when he first started blowing up. Him and Charlie Kaufman were the beautiful freaks among their peers, the guys who made Final Draft their bitch each and every time. They just shat great structure and character with seemingly no effort.
I honestly think Night’s time as an A-list writer may have passed, though. As I said, “Story is looking for a writer” could double as a comment on this film’s subtextual meaning. Night’s command of film language grew by leaps and bounds with each film he makes. There’s no doubt in my mind that he studied the work of Spielberg and the work of his ‘80s peers and that he’s also heavily versed in ‘70s cinema here and abroad as well. He’s just as film literate, just as adept at bending genre convention, as Tarantino. It’s just that he is regurgitating Rod Serling and Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney instead of exploitation fare and Italian crime movies and ‘70s cinema. This is simply how he thinks about story and structure now. He’s retreating into this rarified air, and if there’s any pop culture icon that he truly resembles at this point, it’s not Michael Jordan, and it’s certainly not Bob Dylan. It’s Michael Jackson. Remember when Michael Jackson was supposedly sleeping in that hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and there were even photos of it? Remember how that was supposedly a hoax by Jackson?
As my co-writer said to me earlier today, “What’s creepy about that situation isn’t that Michael Jackson supposedly slept in some oxygen chamber. What’s creepy is that he doesn’t, but he wants you to think that he does. What kind of freaky game is he playing?” Well, I think that’s Shyamalan at this point. His movies are beside the point now. He is the point. His ongoing media presence is the point. He obsessively compares himself to Michael Jordan and Bob Dylan in his new book. Two geniuses at what they do. Guys who are, for lack of a better term, touched by God. Shyamalan spends much of his time in interviews these days invoking these two names, making sure you understand that he is like them. That he is also an icon. That he is bigger than the game. Bob Dylan isn’t a rock star from the ‘60s. Bob Dylan is more famous than that. He’s the rock star from the ‘60s. And Michael Jordan is the basketball player. These guys transcend what they do because they did it like no one else. And Shyamalan is desperate to be acclaimed on that level. He’s not content with making entertaining movies that speak for themselves. He’s not content with contributing a commentary to a disc or doing a few interesting interviews. He has to put himself front and center, and he has to build that aura, that myth, adding new and weirder details to the public persona that he tends with the fervor of a gardener with OCD.
However, film after film now, he’s pursuing a line of diminishing returns. He’s choking the life out of his work because whatever life he’s living, he’s lost touch with the normal that made SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE so powerful. Those films are about real places, real people. “Make the mudane magical, and make the magical mundane” was an early mantra of his, and he’s gone off-message now. Normally, he grounds his outrageous ideas just enough. Even if I think he made some odd stylistic choices in UNBREAKABLE, I still think the movie’s set in a recognizable reality. It’s messy, and those rough edges add to the film’s charm for me. It’s a fantastic story, but no one’s running around in costumes or capes or anything ridiculous like that. Instead, it’s just people, living lives like our own. But Shyamalan reached for whimsy here, something that very few filmmakers are ever able to accomplish, and he ended up with a mish-mash of hubris and strained hyperactive charm instead. He’s given in to complete stereotype, and he seems overly pleased with some oddly offensive characterizations.
The Hispanic sisters. The Korean mother and daughter. The cynical useless film critic. The stoners. The characters that crowd the various rooms in The Cove, the apartment building where Cleveland Heep is superintendent, are not people. They are simply devices. He’s writing in a cartoon style that is totally different than what he’s tried before, but it works at odds with what he’s obviously trying to make a very heartfelt experience. If SIGNS was his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, then LADY IN THE WATER is obviously struggling to be his E.T. And unlike the great calm of his work in ’99, this film is positively drenched in flopsweat. Shyamalan’s self-portrait in THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES is a strange one, apologetic and defensive in advance, like he thinks it’s going to take a full book to explain why LADY IN THE WATER is brilliant and brave and why it’s so important for him and for the whole world.
And anyone who tries to blame the media for this image is wrong, wrong, wrong. There is obviously a bottom-feeding tabloid culture in this country, but they’re not the ones who made Shyamalan a media figure. He did it to himself, and he’s the one who insists on the massive self-promotion with each film’s release now. When someone says, “I feel so bad for him,” I want to yell at them, Don’t do it! Don’t fall for it! He did this! He set himself up for this fall! He did it with his bullshit fake three-hour documentary that came out just before THE VILLAGE, and now he’s done it again with the book. He makes himself the story. The reason he put himself in the film this time is because he’s no longer concerned with making films for the audience. Instead, he’s making excuses to them. LADY IN THE WATER is metafiction, fiction that comments on the very nature of fiction, fiction where structure and symbolism can comment on the story being told, even within that story. By building his film this way, he’s hoping that he’s bulletproofed it. After all, he says in the film that the only way you can truly understand a story like this is to approach it like a child, with your heart wide open, listening with innocent ears. And if the film fails, then that’s because you didn’t watch it right. And when he includes the character of Mr. Farber, that film critic played by Bob Balaban, and when he kills him, that’s his way of guaranteeing that any critic who hates the film hates it because of that scene. In a way, I admire his effort and the crafty nature of that. It’s ultimately a shell game, but it’s a smart one.
And just to further qualify this review, since it seems that Night’s most rabid supporters love to label any dissenting thinker as “a hater,” I’d like to remind you once again that I’ve never given one of his films a bad review. Sure, I had some hard words for the early draft of THE VILLAGE that I read, and I think there are major structural issues with the finished film, but I was quite kind to it when I reviewed it, just as I was with SIGNS and with UNBREAKABLE. This is an important film for him, though. Coming on the heels of a perceived disappointment like THE VILLAGE, and coming at the same time as the crazycrazycrazy portrait of him in the book, he needs to stick this landing. This needs to be more than a movie. This needs to be a cultural event. Remember the summer that E.T. came out? I do. I remember the way the film snuck up on the mainstream. It was as low-key a marketing campaign as I’ve ever seen, and people felt like they discovered the movie, like it was a secret that audiences passed one to the next. That was a genuine cultural event. And that’s what Shyamalan is striving for here. I think the last time he had this much expectation and pressure centered on the release of one of his films was when UNBREAKABLE was released to follow up the success of THE SIXTH SENSE.
The moderate underperformance of that film ($250 million or so worldwide) will be a positive triumph compared to what finally happens with this film. Or at least, that would be the best thing that could happen for Shyamalan as an artist. If this film fails, then he loses that absolute final cut/no rewrites/insulated bubble thing he’s got going on right now, and I am a firm believer that he will be better for it. If he has to make a few films while working with others, it will force him to allow in more voices than the ones he talks about hearing in his head. He’ll be healthier for it. I’ve said before, and I believe completely, that film is collaboration. No one makes a movie completely by themselves, and if they do, I doubt it would be worth watching. To the extent that he allows other people to claim any stake on his work, Shyamalan serves them well.
His cast is obviously trying to please him in this film, and he’s put together a pretty damn fine list of performers here. Paul Giamatti. Jeffrey Wright. Bill Irwin. Bob Balaban. Jared Harris. Sarita Choudhury. Mary Beth Hurt. Once again, James Newton Howard has stepped up with a lovely piece of film composition. And he’s picked a heavy hitter in the form of Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer whose work was a big part of the luminous magic of films like 2046, LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, HERO, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, ASHES OF TIME, CHUNGKING EXPRESS, among others. And, true to form, Doyle’s work is good in the film, even adventurous at times. But these collaborators are all 100% in the service of M. Night’s vision, and this time out, that vision has failed them, left them literally standing around in the rain with nothing to do, waiting for directions from Story that never come.
Enough preamble for you? Can you see how much baggage Night brings to the table now with each film? And each bit of it is his own doing. He wants all of this bouncing around in your head while you’re watching, no matter how much he tells you in the film to watch like a child. His intense desire to make himself into a movie star is one of the major things that hobbles this particular movie, and it’s also the key to deciphering this particular act of hubris. In order to fully explain, I’m afraid I have to indulge in some spoilers, and in doing so, it’s possible that I will ruin whatever experience you might have with the movie. But again... that’s very canny on Night’s part. A critic can’t fully dissect or discuss this film without revealing plot points, and in doing so, they risk the wrath of Night’s fans, who believe every one of his golden and perfect plot points is to be zealously protected. I don’t feel particularly obligated this time, though, since he lays everything out at the beginning (sort of), and then sticks to what he says (pretty much) and then just tells you the story he promises he’s going to tell (in a way). And here’s where one more level of bulletproofing comes in... he has made sure to preface all of this as a bedtime story. In a bedtime story, one you’re making up off the top of your head, you are allowed to change the rules or reinvent things as you need to in order to get out of whatever narrative corner you’ve painted yourself into. I don’t buy that as a narrative in a film if there’s $14 a ticket and $5 parking on the line, but if I complain, it’s because I don’t “understand” it’s a bedtime story.
Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a Narf. Narfs are water people from the Blue World. Eons ago, people and water people got along and talked all the time, and the water people told us important things. But then we went up on land and evidently our desire to own things led to wars and we forgot the water people completely, and so they went away. But from time to time, they have to tell us important things, and for that reason, they have invented a complex and arbitrary set of rules that must be followed, and it is the discovery and understanding of those rules that makes up the majority of the running time of the film. Story comes to The Cove looking for someone, a writer. She has to meet him so that he has a magical awakening. Once he does, he will write a book that will end up being published, only to end up in the home of a boy who will read it frequently before growing up to become President of the United States. He will go on to do great things, and it will be because he read this book that is written by whoever it is that Story has come to see. And should it come as any surprise to anyone who has watched all of Night’s films that he casts himself as the ultimate goal of Story’s quest? He is the man destined to write the book that will change the world. Despite the way Story tosses around the phrase “Every person has a purpose” a few times, he doesn’t mean it. Or at least the film doesn’t demonstrate it. The contributions that each of the people in The Cove make to the plan that develops to send Story home are negligible at best. One character demonstrates a real skill, the ability to read messages and signs from images, using cereal boxes in place of ancient runes or chicken bones or whatever, and that’s one of the few character bits that I think really works. But for the most part, his attempt to illustrate this particular theme fails, and instead, he seems to have cast himself as the Writing Messiah, a man whose words are so powerful that they will alter the very fabric of our reality. The character idea alone would be a little nauseating, but for Night to step in and play his biggest role in any film except his largely-unseen first film... and to have it be this particular role... this is what I mean when I say he invites the comments on his ego now. This would be like George Lucas insisting on playing The Emperor or Hitchcock playing Norman Bates. It's so lunkheaded you can't look away.
God help me, I’m not exaggerating.
Narfs are afraid of Scrunts, but Scrunts are afraid of Tartutics. And all of this is important to know if the Great Eatlon is supposed to come and retrieve Story, who is actually a Madam Narf, a special Narf who will lead the other Narfs. We know this because it is laid out in meticulous, painstaking detail for us.
And that meticulous, painstaking detail... that’s really all there is in the film. There’s very little else going on here. As much as I admire the design work that Mark “Crash” McCreery did for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2, I think his work here is as bland as the concepts he’s bringing to life. He’s hindered by the ordinary quality of these particular inventions of Night’s. A dog covered in grass. Freaky monkey-tree creatures. And a big eagle straight out of the end of RETURN OF THE KING. These are the elements of magic that are supposed to add up to transcendence at the end of this film. But it’s all so nonsensical, so completely without even the bare minimum of logic that a great fairy tale should possess, that none of it matters. By halfway in, the worst feeling had taken hold of me, and no matter how much effort I was seeing expended onscreen, the same thought just kept playing over and over for me, louder and louder as the film progressed.
I. Don’t. Care.
Everything seemed overconsidered. Everything felt phony. Giamatti’s journey in the film is pretty much a rehash of the standard “wounded hero who must heal himself in order to face his own heroism” that Shyamalan’s been writing since THE SIXTH SENSE, but it’s the least interesting and most underdeveloped of them all. Giamatti’s family was killed. He’s very sad. He stutters. That’s it. That’s all you get. You want to see a great version of this character? You want to see a movie that manages whimsy and horror and magic and comedy and tension in an effortless way? Check out THE FISHER KING sometime. That’s a film in which magic and reality blur. That’s a film in which belief in a fairy tale is more important than the fairy tale itself. That’s a film that does everything LADY IN THE WATER tries to do, but it makes it so human that it hurts. The reason FISHER KING resonates with me a full 15 years later is because I believed those characters, and they mattered to me. What happened to them mattered to me. With this film, Shyamalan’s script is such a stiff, so completely overcooked from the very start, that I’m never given a chance to invest in anyone. I’m never allowed to believe in this world because Night is too busy slapping on the ham-handed exposition. He forgets to draw us in. I never felt like these were people I might actually meet. I never once felt like this was something that might happen. I never managed to believe.
It’s a strange week to be a critic. Watching the Kevin Smith/Joel Siegel thing happen, watching people tie themselves in knots to kiss Shyamalan’s balls while struggling with their own obvious disappointment with the film, watching foreign governments step in to stifle film criticism for the good of the economy... one gets the feeling that this world would be happier if critics would just shut up and get onboard for each and every movie. Maybe our job should just be to describe movies to you without daring to have an opinion about execution or merit. It’s funny that Smith got so upset at Joel Siegel walking out and making a few comments at the screen. It happens sometimes. People have visceral reactions to movies, and sometimes, talking is part of that. I don’t condone it, but it happens. At the Arclight on Monday night, there was a press screening for LADY IN THE WATER, and the mood at the start of the film seemed to be a pretty open-minded one. People applauded a few times as the film settled in and got going, and they laughed in all the right places, oohed and aahed a few times. When the Scrunt appeared, people jumped and giggled afterwards. The film played... up to a point. And it’s hard to be exactly sure when it happened, but I’ll tell you when I noticed them turn. There’s a moment after Night’s character discovers what his destiny is, where he’s wrestling with the implications of it, and he’s talking about how he still can’t believe he’s the one. “Who am I to tell people these things?” he asks. “I’m no one special.”
And from the back of the theater, clear as a bell, someone grumbled, “Goddamn right about that.” And there was a ripple of laughter from some of the people around him. I didn’t think it was a particularly pithy comment, and I don't endorse ruining other people's experience with a film at all, but the reaction was telling. People laughed. And the more Night talked about how important his work is, the more people seemed to shut down and disconnect. The more other people felt like it was okay for them to talk. By the time the credits roll (to a cover version of a Bob Dylan song, once again reinforcing how much he wants to be associated with the icons he believes himself the equal of), there was open hissing and booing. A fair amount of it. More than I’ve ever heard at any press screening anywhere. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it. This was the most openly hostile room I've been in for a film since the first test screening of NORTH, where Jerry Seinfeld loudly told Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Jason Alexander, "Nope, not even for you guys," before he walked out. People didn’t just leave the theater on Monday night; they stormed out. I normally don’t discuss the reactions of crowds when I write reviews. I think people frequently project onto the audience.
That’s not the case here, though. Those people turned on Night over the running time of that film, and that’s a genuine problem. All the spin in the world and all the talk about watching like a child and all the pre-release excuses aren’t going to help with the general audience. This film will bore and infuriate many viewers, and the marketing that’s selling this as a horror movie won’t help at all. This is not a horror movie. It wants to be a family movie. It’s fairly chaste, and there’s nothing really objectionable in it as long as your kid isn’t a stickler for good structure or solid characterization.
I wish I could convey to you just how much this film depressed me. It made me so sad that it’s taken me two days to write about it. This is one of those films that will genuinely bother me when I hear someone try to defend it. I’m not going to try to explain to you why someone else does or doesn’t like something; that is presumptuous, and it always seems like you’re trying to tear someone else’s opinion down to build up your own. If you really love this film, then I guess it’s a good think Night made it. But I think this is a hard film to defend, and I think overall, this is a creative dead end for an artist who makes it hard to like him even when his work is at its best, much less when he’s churning out aggressively condescending material like this.
And don't think I wanted to write this. This review isn't going to make Harry very happy. This review won't please the good folks over at Warner Bros. who have been so very accomodating to me this year. This review won't endear me any further to the guys at Legendary Pictures, who really do seem to be betting on passion projects with all the best intent, no matter what I think of a few of the films. Writing this serves no purpose, it would seem. Unless that purpose is, despite all the negative ramifications of my writing it, to say these things to Night that need to be said. Maybe that's my purpose. And if so... then I've done it. I’ve written a blatantly negative review of Night’s work for the first time. Feel free to send me your angry missives now explaining to me how Night is “original” and “unique” and how I should count myself lucky to live in a world where the exquisite Mr. Shyamalan is allowed to do anything he wants. In one way, I agree. The creative deal he has from picture to picture is exceptional. No rewrites. Final cut. Casting and marketing control. This guy’s got it made, and he sets an interesting precendent as a result. Other writer/directors would do well to push their own representation to follow his lead. But if you do end up with that much control, I would ask you to return to this film, to gaze into this WATER, and pay attention. This is what happens when no one says no. This is what happens when you don’t trust your audience and you don’t trust your collaborators on a production. This is what happens when the only person you listen to is you, to the exclusion of even the best-intended critical reaction from those around you.
I’ll be back tonight with my pre-Comic Con pieces on STARDUST and 300, and I’ve also got my review of the one film opening this weekend that I can recommend without reservation. Until then...