One of the strangest major releases I’ve ever seen, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” is a genre-defying, form-snubbing plunge into the overly sentimental, proudly nonsensical world of bedtime stories. A tale that unfolds with the tenuous logic of a sugar-addled 5-year-old and an utter disregard for pacing, character development, and tonal consistency, this is the kind of film that demands that you leave your cynicism at the door and listen to the story with the eyes and ears of a child. And if you are willing to do this, the film can be a very rewarding experience. But given that we live in a world today where the most-anticipated movie of the summer was literally reshot to incorporate the contributions of snarky fanboys who want to hear Samuel L. Jackson say “motherfucking” as many times as possible, I don’t quite think that this tale is going to find many listeners.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, excellent as ever) is the stuttering superintendent of a run-down Philadelphia-area apartment complex called The Cove. Heep knows all of the tenants and spends his days fixing their windows, killing bugs, and welcoming new arrivals. On this particular day, he’s welcoming a film critic (Bob Balaban) who has just been relocated for an assignment at the local paper. As Cleveland shows the critic through the building, we meet a sassy Korean girl and her mother, a Latino family with 5 chatty sisters and a tiny father, a young man who only works out one side of his body (Freddie Rodriguez), a black single father who likes crosswords (Geoffrey Wright), a kindly old woman who cares for sick animals, and an idealistic young writer who has hit a block (director Shyamalan, in a rather nauseating bit of navel-gazing). It’s sort of like “Magnolia Meets Melrose Place”.
There’s also the issue of the pool: it seems as though someone has been swimming after hours, and is gumming up the water and the filter with hair and some slick substance. Cleveland, being quite serious about his job and responsibilities, vows to catch whomever it is that’s fooling around outside of pool hours. That evening when he hears a splash and goes out to investigate, he sees a girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) pop out of the water and winds up hitting his head and falling into the pool, unconscious. When he comes to, he’s safe in his bed and the strange, luminous girl is sitting across from him.
Well, that didn’t take long! I was expecting that the whole “lady” part of the movie was going to take some getting to, but here we are with a mermaid (or “Narf”, as they call it here) telling Cleveland that she has been sent to meet a particular human in order to inspire that human to change the world, as is the duty of her kind. She doesn’t know who the person is, but she must meet him or her in a short period of time, after which point a giant eagle will swoop down from the sky to take her back to the Blue World. But beware – for giant wolves with backs made of grass called Scrunts will do anything in their power to stop her from meeting the chosen human, for they want the universe to be thrown into chaos. And there are also monkey-demons in the trees made of pure evil who keep watch to ensure that no one breaks the laws.
Already you’re probably thinking, “what in God’s name has M. Night been smoking, and where can I get some?”. But remember – from the animated narration that started the film, this has been a bedtime story, an extension of an ancient oral tradition designed to make a world of chaos seem livable, seem right. Right off the bat we’re tipped off to the fact that this is not a regular movie: it’s a campfire tale, a series of cave drawings. These aren’t “real” people, any more than the idea of having a mermaid in a swimming pool is real. Shyamalan gives us plenty of clues that he’s not trying to make a traditional thriller here – that it’s best to leave your preconceptions at the door and let the story (which also happens to be the name of the Narf) wash over you.
Many will take the fact that the critic in the film is such an asshole to be a defensive move on Shyamalan’s part, given his prickly past with the press and severe critical response to his films. But I think this is short-sighted. Much in the way that other characters in the film will soon take on titles such as “The Healer”, “The Interpreter”, and “The Guardian”, “The Critic” is a representation of a mindset: namely, a lack of sentimentality. It’s no coincidence that Balaban has a humorous monologue about how he hates romantic comedies (which Shyamalan doesn’t make) – his approach to life and art is purely logical, and as a fairy tale is not based on logic, he has no place here. Shyamalan isn’t saying “Fuck you for not liking my movies”, he’s saying “Fuck you for losing your ability to see the world with wonder”. And even as a critic, I’d have to agree with him there.
Also curious is the fact that the creature that Howard plays is called a Narf, which is supposed to be a character from Korean folklore (although Narf doesn’t sound even remotely Asian to me). Interestingly, the Urban Dictionary defines Narf as “one who plays Dungeons and Dragons” and “and action to signify victory in Dungeons and Dragons” (it was also apparently used in this manner on “Pinky and the Brain”). Is it mere coincidence that this character’s name is Story and that her species shares a name with people who willingly suspend disbelief for hours on end as they navigate their way through a purely fantastical realm? It’s odd, either way – Shyamalan seems to be coaxing us to open up, to actively change the way that we experience stories – to become like children again.
Notice that the “telling” of Story’s tale is intentionally protracted and complex: few details are provided by Story herself (she is not allowed to speak of the Blue World), so Cleveland must pull the information out of a hilariously bitter old Korean woman and her wacky daughter – at one point even literally “regressing” to childhood in order to get the cantankerous lady to trust him (it’s one of the more ridiculous and funnier bits of the movie). The story comes out piece by piece: over tea, on the phone, yelled from a balcony. And even further, told through another interpreter, via hand signals, read in pictures and drawings. As I was watching the film I did become frustrated with the telling of the tale, as it does seem to stretch on and on, seemingly without end. But it makes sense, and is deliberate – and I’ll take a deliberate tedium over slipshod excitement any day.
The notion of communal experience is also very central to “Lady”. Are we really supposed to believe that everyone who lives in this apartment complex is around all the time (notice how everyone is always home and able to answer the door at any given time)? Of course not. This is our “tribe”, our group of familiars who stand in for our strengths and fears and best intentions. As the story moves along, Cleveland goes from being the lone connecting thread of the group to the whole community gathering as one to help Story complete her quest, literally joining in a circle. Is this a bit too Kum-By-Ya? Well, then you likely haven’t made it this far in the review anyway. And I honestly don’t see anything wrong with suggesting that we could come together as a community every now and then, however hokey that may be. It’s also interesting that Cleveland has a hard time identifying the “writer” that Story is looking for in the building, as it seems that everyone writes in his or her own way (books, reviews, essays, crosswords) – it seems that we all have the ability to tell stories, to contribute to the tale.
In the end, Shyamalan is a deeply sensitive filmmaker who tells stories about people overcoming odds, coming together, and opening up to each other and to the universe. And you know what? I think we need more storytellers like him. He may be biting off of Steven Speilberg left and right (and he may have a ways to go before he matches Speilberg’s best), but honestly, why not shoot for the stars? Shyamalan’s films inspire a sense of hushed wonder and have enough humor and humanity to lead to enormously satisfying emotional experiences, if you choose to allow them to. Given that he has been shoehorned into being a genre director (which only a few of his films actually are, if you think about it), most audiences have come to expect pat, clever thrillers (“The Six Sense”, “Signs”), when his true strength is telling stories about the nicked but resilient human condition (the brilliant “Unbreakable”, the woefully mismarketed “The Village”). While I can imagine that most filmgoers won’t be entirely willing to comply with Shyamalan’s urgings to leave their savvy adult selves at the door and give “Lady” a listen without prejudice (and although “Lady” is far from perfect), I do think it’s worth a try. If he’s willing to wear his heart on his sleeve in front of millions of cinemagoers by telling this unabashedly sentimental tale, we can certainly do the same by simply listening in the safety of a dark theatre.