It’s a foregone conclusion that writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan does not like film critics.
That’s pretty obvious judging by a key scene in his latest movie, in which a snobby, bitter, irascible movie critic played by Bob Balaban meets a grizzly demise at the claws of a vicious werewolf-like animal. But that’s nothing compared to the mauling that Shyamalan will likely receive from real critics after they emerge from ?Lady in the Water,? the filmmaker’s mundane, preachy, self-indulgent attempt at a fairy tale after four back-to-back supernatural thrillers.
Not that they were ordinary thrillers. The first of them, 1999’s ?The Sixth Sense,? put Shyamalan on the map, thanks to a catchy tagline (?I see dead people!?), a killer surprise ending, six Oscar nominations and a worldwide gross of more than $660 million. Combined with the rest of his follow-ups — 2000’s ?Unbreakable,? 2002’s ?Signs? and 2004’s ?The Village? — Shyamalan’s last four movies, all distributed by Disney, have grossed more than $2 billion worldwide, making him one of the most consistently bankable filmmakers in the business.
But when Disney chairman Dick Cook and then-Motion Picture Group president Nina Jacobson reportedly didn’t ?get? the premise for ?Lady in the Water,? Shyamalan felt betrayed by his longtime colleagues and bolted for Warner Bros. Turns out that Cook and Jacobson were right on the money, because after a strong and engaging start, ?Lady in the Water? gets more absurd as it progresses before concluding rather abruptly — and without the ?Twilight Zone?-style surprise ending that Shyamalan’s movies have come to be best known for.
Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, an introverted apartment building superintendent who discovers a mysterious young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in the passageways beneath his swimming pool. He soon realizes that Story is actually a nymph-like character who is trying to get back to her home world, but cannot do so because of vicious creatures that are lurking in the grounds around the pool. Cleveland vows to do whatever it takes to return Story to her home, but he will need the help of his building’s offbeat tenants, who will have to realize their own true potential if they are going to save Story’s world?and ours.
Just like he did with ?The Village,? Shyamalan confines the story to a single location — in this case, a run-down apartment building in the suburbs of Philadelphia (where he resides and films his movies). But the setting also recalls the 1954 classic ?Rear Window,? whose director, Alfred Hitchcock, has been an obvious influence on Shyamalan for years. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan proves to be a master of suspense, as the film’s best scenes are the ones that build genuine intensity before jolting you out of your seat with scare tactics that never seem to get old.
But otherwise, ?Lady in the Water? is a sappy mess that tries too hard to do for Shyamalan what 1982’s ?E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial? did for Steven Spielberg. The similarities between the two films couldn’t be more obvious, as both deal with otherworldly creatures that depend on emotionally bruised protagonists to help them get back home. But where ?E.T.? was a magical fairy tale that was told with grace and conviction, ?Lady in the Water? is much more convoluted and contrived, since we are told about Story’s powers more than we actually see them, and Shyamalan is far too preachy about the film’s ?inspiring? message.
And after making cameo appearances in his previous Disney films (again taking a cue from Hitchcock), Shyamalan has his biggest acting role since his 1992 debut, ?Praying with Anger.? His performance is effective, but casting himself as a writer who wants to change the world was a mistake — not only is it distracting, but it also reeks of arrogance. Otherwise, Paul Giamatti fares the best of the cast and gives a strong, heartfelt performance, while Bryce Dallas Howard — who was also in ?The Village? — is far less interesting and doesn’t have much to do except sit in the shower and preach about the importance of finding your true purpose.
Ah, but back to that critic. Now I don’t mind that Shyamalan felt the need to make the film’s one and only casualty an unlikable character who reviews movies for a living — if he really has that much disdain for critics, he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But at least the doomed critic wound up having the most prophetic line of the film. After returning from a screening, Cleveland asks Mr. Farber (who may or may not be based on real life film commentator Stephen Farber), ?So how was the movie?? Farber’s response: ?It sucked.?
Couldn’t have said it better myself.