Monday, January 1, 2007

Lady in the Water


All Wet

M. Night Shyamalan has built an interesting resume of films in his career. His breakout suspense hit, The Sixth Sense (1999), put him on the map and announced to audiences that a unique talent had arrived. He followed that effort with Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004). His stories have becomes famous for the “twist” at the end of the story that viewers try to guess early on. While I’m not a fan of all of his films, I have to appreciate a filmmaker who populates his stories with interesting ideas, and takes much of his influence from The Twilight Zone, one of my favorite television shows.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), is a stuttering superintendent that presides over a quirky bunch of tenants in a Philadelphia apartment complex. It’s obvious that someone is taking unauthorized dips in the pool after hours, and Heep is determined to catch them. After noticing some splashing late one night, he almost drowns trying to fish them out. He is rescued by the mysterious Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a blank-faced girl who seems to be part of a bedtime story known only by the mother of one of the tenants. Every person in the building seems to fit into this tale somehow. Can they help Story return to her (“Blue”) world, before she is killed by a mysterious unseen force?

If the above description sounds pretty weird, well--it’s a weird movie. You’ve got Howard coming out of the pool (sans fins). You’ve got a guy living in the building who only works out one side of his body. You’ve got this fairy tale (that only one person knows) which for some reason directly applies to everything that is happening. You’ve got a strange creature that pops out of the grass and kills people. You’ve got a movie/book critic who recites dialogue that pokes fun at things going on in the very film he’s in. You’ve got another great Paul Giamatti performance. And that theme! Turn it off!

The main problem is that things never evolve to the point that you feel drawn in. Shyamalan continuously feeds us parts of the tenant’s bedtime story, and expects us to go “oh, that person must be this part of the tale!” This works for awhile, but he keeps jerking us around by adding details and changing his mind (“fooled yah, that person doesn’t fit in here--but there!”). This took me out of the narrative, and made me care a lot less than I was obviously supposed to.

Another thing that bugged me here is Shyamalan’s directing style. Like Unbreakable, he employs lots of long, unbroken shots, most of them static. The camera rarely moves, just the characters within it. Pace-wise, this really slows things down to a crawl, and I wish he’d quit doing it. It really makes me crazy.

Giamatti (Cinderella Man) is wonderful as always, and his Heep is a complex, sad guy that we want better things for. Howard (The Village) is again a stoic Shyamalan heroine, who does her job well, even if it is pretty one-note. Shyamalan himself steps out of the director’s cameo and gives himself a real part and a lot of screen time this go around. If you know who he is, this may be bit distracting (and he does seem a bit outdone by his professional actor counterparts), but I have no problem with this (Clint Eastwood does it in all his movies, right?). The cast is well-rounded and very culturally diverse, which I liked.

For those of you expecting a twist, don’t look for it, or you’ll be disappointed. While the story plays out fairly straightforward, the only real twist in Lady in the Water is that it’s not that great of a movie.

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