Smith’s Verdict: **1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“’Lady in the Water’ and ‘The Happening’ are too goofy for me to hate” –excerpt from my “Devil” review
I can’t rationally defend M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”; on a critic’s level, I gave it one-and-a-half stars. But on a personal level, it’s one of the most fun so-bad-it’s-good movies I could pop in every once in a while. We all have our guilty pleasures. But I do feel bad for holding guilt over enjoying three movies under Shyamalan’s name (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” and “Devil,” all of which are silly in many different ways). I know this filmmaker is an easy target for ridicule and mockery, but remember: this is the same guy that brought us “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Visit.” (I don’t even mind “The Village.”) Yes, I hated “The Last Airbender,” but I can’t hold that over his head like most people on the Internet do.
“Lady in the Water” is a film people use to mock Shyamalan for making it. But is it really deserving of much hatred?
This was Shyamalan’s departure from Disney Studios, having Warner Bros. present the film instead. Even though Disney was going to fund the movie anyway due to Shyamalan bringing them hit after hit after hit, Shyamalan took offense at the executives who took a look at his script and said they didn’t understand it, and he left. So let’s see what they didn’t understand…
Based on a fairy tale Shyamalan told his children before bed, “Lady in the Water” brings depressed apartment-building superintendent Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) in the middle of a strange “bedtime story” come to life, once he meets a water nymph that comes from the swimming pool. She is a “narf” named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who has come from the Blue World to inspire a budding writer who lives in the building and whose writing will change the world for the better. Once that is done, a giant eagle known as the Great Eatlon will come and take her back home. One of the tenants, Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), is reminded of an Eastern story like this, and so, she brings her mother (June Kyoko Lu) in to tell him the story so he (and we) can fill in the blanks to find parallels to what’s happening here. There are also monsters lurking outside near the pool—wolf-like Scrunts who leave poison with their scratches, and monkey-like Tartutics who serve as the Blue World’s peacekeepers who attack Scrunts. Cleveland agrees to protect Story, as he searches the building and tries to determine which of his tenants is the writer and which of the rest of the tenants are chosen to assist Story in her journey home—a guardian who can fend off the Scrunts, an interpreter who can read messages in mundane features, a healer who can heal Story’s wounds, and a group of helpers.
I will give this movie credit for its originality. All this talk about the things in this “bedtime story” combined with modern-world parallels is intriguing, even if some of it does seem ridiculous. (And I’m not going to lie…it is kind of ridiculous. Even Cleveland laughs at how silly some of this is on some occasions.) And I do like how this movie establishes its environment within this apartment building, with many different characters with different purposes banding together to help save this “narf.” (Even that word “narf” sounds ridiculous.) But the problem is this story contains so many essentials that it gets kind of hard to follow. On top of that, we never see the Blue World. We only hear about it as we follow Cleveland and learn things as he goes and finds out more. The more that becomes thrown at us, the more lost people can become. Sad to say, this may be what turned Disney off on the script.
(Oh, and the said-interpreter who can read messages in mundane features? It turns out to be a little boy who can decode secret messages through cereal boxes… Yeah.)
So, who plays this specific author whose storytelling will better humanity’s future? M. Night Shyamalan himself, of course. This was not a good move. It’s not because Shyamalan is wooden in the role but because it enforces his detractors’ general view of his probable egotism. I mean, think about it—Shyamalan is playing a writer who isn’t fully understood yet but his book about world views will many years later inspire a future leader (and someone will take his life because of it). That’s…a little too easy.
Shyamalan has also included a character who is a snooty, cynical film critic named Farber (Bob Balaban). Farber is a critic who complains about everything, thinks he knows what’s going to happen here and there (whether it’s in a movie or not…or this movie), is so full of himself, and (SPOILER ALERT) gets brutally murdered by a vicious beast. Obviously, this is a stereotype of people might think a film critic is like, because very few critics in real life are like this. So I like to think this is Shyamalan’s way of making fun of people whom he thinks don’t understand his work some of the time (and maybe, since Farber points out some self-aware commentary about the goofiness the situation may seem, it’s his way of addressing the film’s criticisms before the critics could get to it). I’m thinking to myself, “OK, this is kinda fun. Shyamalan’s making jokes about critics.”
That’s why it baffles me when people take it seriously, like Shyamalan was taking non-subtle jabs at his hecklers and saying no one will understand him and they don’t deserve to. I didn’t have a problem with it—they’re just jokes. So what?
Let’s get to more of the positives, now that I’ve described the problems people have with “Lady in the Water.” As I said, I like certain elements of this story being told, but I also really cared for the person learning all of these things. Paul Giamatti does a great job as this depressed man who lost his wife and children to a burglar/murderer. His mannerisms are convincing (even his stutter, which sounds remarkably realistic) and you feel like you reach out and touch this guy, like pat his shoulders and tell him everything’s going to be OK. Some of the side actors playing the tenants are really good as well, such as Bob Balaban as the critic, Jeffrey Wright as a crossword-puzzles whiz, and Sarita Choudhury as Shyamalan’s character’s helpful sister. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Bryce Dallas Howard, whose character of Story is ineffective as merely a plot device who doesn’t really do anything herself, aside from whimper and whisper throughout the entire movie. I’m not saying this is Howard’s fault; she just has so little to work with, despite the movie being named after her.
What else do I like? The music score by James Newton Howard. The music is outstandingly good; it becomes a character of its own. I wouldn’t mind listening to this soundtrack and coming up with my own movie based around it.
I also admired the spiritual aspect of the movie. According to Young-Soon, the moral of the bedtime story is no one knows for sure who they are, and it takes everyone in the movie to understand their place in this world in order to save the day.
I notice the flaws of “Lady in the Water” and I can see why people make fun of it, but there’s just something so fascinating about it. I admire what Shyamalan was trying to do, even if some of what he did backfired. I hear there’s a book about the making of this film (entitled “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On a Fairy Tale”), and I’d be interested to read it. This movie garnered enough interest for me to find out more about it. And this is a guilty pleasure I certainly hold guilt on but I enjoy watching every once in a while as well.