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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Lady in the Water

Lady in the Water, currently playing at the Essex Cinemas, is a soggy tale that left me feeling like I’d been left out in the rain for a few too many hours without an umbrella. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Now I don’t want you to think that I hated the movie entirely. Lady in the Water has many good moments, and Paul Giamatti (Sideways) gives a remarkable performance as he does in all of his roles. It’s just that the plot is all wet.

Perhaps it is because I am used to my fantasies being served up in a fantasy world, where things may look like they do in this universe but where people don’t find it unusual to see a man in blue tights and a red cape fly across the sky. In the world of Lady in the Water, however, fantasy
collides with our “real” universe and does so with not much more reaction from its’ witnesses than a shrug of acceptance. I know it’s supposed to be a “fairy tale” but we don’t even get a proper “Once upon a time…” to make it seem a tad more palatable. Instead, we are just supposed to swallow this fish-out-of-water-bullpucky like we are wide-eyed seven year olds without the least bit of preparation. Maybe it would’ve made more sense if I’d have brought along the Cliff Notes, but I did learn a few things that I can only wish were true in real life:

1) The sicker you get the more platinum blonde your hair will turn until you either look like an angel or a member of Hitler Jungen. If you are wearing make-up it will also miraculously become flawless in what I call “‘Brian’s Song’ Syndrome.”

2) Expect that swimming pools will always have mysterious entryways into other worlds. Just don’t expect Rod Serling will be standing in the foreground somewhere to be your guide when you jump in. And you know you are going to. It’s inevitable.

3) Never walk down empty hallways without mirrors and a scythe in case of attack by a moving lawn. Better yet, only patrol the hallways of your apartment building on a riding lawnmower.

4) When in doubt, look for a little kid who reads cereal boxes like they are Tarot cards. Who knew Cheerios held the secrets to life itself?

If you can keep these in mind when venturing into the world of Lady in the Water you may have a much better time from the get-go. Oh, and…

5) You might want to keep an extra bathing suit around in case someone naked shows up unexpectedly. Hey. It couldn’t hurt, unless
of course you are a guy and you want to see Bryce Dallas Howard naked. You guys at the Essex Cinemas know I am talking to you!

So the title character of Lady in the Water is a
“narf” named Story, played by the alluring Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village). A narf is a sea nymph who, in this case, has crossed over from her world, the “world of blue”, to our dimension via a mystical tunnel under the community swimming pool located at a Philadelphia apartment complex called The Cove. Once here, she meets the resident janitor/ building superintendent, Cleveland Heep (Giamatti), who becomes her protector while trying to help her complete her mission and find her way home. This quest involves finding a writer, which seems more than a bit of narcissistic self-indulgent vanity, since this saga is written by M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed and produced the film. Oh, and, naturally, he also plays the amazing writer she seeks, whose manuscript will be responsible for making a positive change in the world’s future that will affect the course of history forever. Why Story must make this connection with the writer is never made clear, but then a lot of the details of Lady in the Water are swept away to make time for the characters to sparkle even if the plot is as dull as dishwater.

People expecting the clever plot twist Shyamalan is famous for from his earlier films (The Sixth
Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) may be most shocked by the fact that there is nothing this time around that changes the view of everything the audience has seen up until the climax. Instead, this movie focuses less on the tricks of the plot and more on the characterization of Giamatti’s tragic every-man, Heep.

Heep is working at The Cove because he is hiding away from the life he once knew. He holds a heartbreaking secret that none of the tenants know about and that Heep has not confronted and let go. The “magic” of Story’s appearance is that by the time she does leave for home Heep is thrust into a position that requires him to act as the man he once was and by doing so he moves beyond
his grief and internalized sadness and realizes that he can only do as much as any man, a lesson that absolves him of responsibility for the pain and blame he has carried from his past.

Lady in the Water is based on a bedtime story Shyamalan is said to have made up to entertain his own children. One can only wonder how much therapy they may need to overcome the grislier aspects of the yarn as Story is pursued throughout her journey by a scrunt, a vicious combination of wolf and crabgrass from the looks of it. I’d hate to have one get in the house because I’m sure they aren’t housebroken and you know they’d not only eat your children, they’d leave dirt clods on the carpet. Bad scrunts, bad! But I digress… The scrunt really is an unpleasant sort. Besides being determined to kill Story, it is more than happy to dispatch at least one of The Cove’s other residents, a film critic named Farber, played with enough anal retentive charm to turn coal into diamonds by Bob Balaban (Capote). One can only speculate the psychological significance in Shyamalan’s decision to make his one on-screen victim in this otherwise gore-free fest be a movie critic, but I’ll leave that to James Lipton to pontificate about when he eventually lures the auteur to Inside the Actor’s Studio for an in-depth interview and quiz about his favorite dirty words.

If it seems like Lady in the Water is all over the place it is. Shyamalan’s decision to include a cast of what seems like dozens of residents in subplots of their own makes for a criss-crossing of stories that never quite come together but merely brush past each other as if strangers in the same hallway. Their significance or weight to the outcome of Story’s fate is as muddy as a Vermont pasture in April, but perhaps that was Shyamalan’s plan all along. It does keep the audience guessing as to how and who is going to figure prominently in Story’s final confrontation with the scrunt, though I tend to think that with so many involved all they’d really need to do is get a weed-whacker and go to work on the beastie.

I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing Lady in the Water. It is definitely different than anything else on the summer slate this year. Some may find it a remarkable journey, others a tedious trip, but it is definitely all Shyamalan all the time.

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