Lady in the Water, 2006
The set-up in Lady in the Water – janitor (Paul Giamatti) finds naked lady (Bryce Dallas Howard) in pool and they go back to his place – would be delicious if M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t the least sexy marquee director in the history of American movies. While his hero Steven Spielberg finally broke into the bedroom last year in the demented sex scene in Munich, Shyamalan is still so hung up on kids’ stuff that he doesn’t deign to bother with something as sweaty and icky as lust. But this may be the first of his movies in which the needs of the nethers are so conspicuously absent: even when Cleveland Heep, a lonely janitor (read “horny”), is greeted in his living room by a naked 25-year-old in the beckoning form of the full-bodied Bryce, he’d rather nap than tap. Any chance of some Splash antics is out of the question, as Cleveland is so chaste it’s perverted. Back in 1984, Tom Hanks tried to bust down the door while his mermaid houseguest was in the bath. These days our hero is constantly telling his waterlogged guest to put some clothes on. And while he’s at it, Shyamalan has managed to make the otherwise enticing Bryce Dallas Howard look about as invigorating as a smooth-down-there E.T. doll.
Once it’s established that nothing untoward is going to go down in pool house, the stiff gears of the story get grinding. It turns out that this lady from another world has crossed into ours because she must look into the eyes of a chosen person for some vague – but doubtlessly very important – reason before she can return to the Blue World, so Cleveland decides to help out. Strangely, his main motivation seems to be to get the girl out of his place, a narrative device that threatens to confuse healthy boys in the audience and delay the sexual development of shy ones.
It’s fitting that Shyamalan’s movie – which posits the provocative idea that men aren’t obsessed with screwing – would have a masturbatory central conceit. Namely, that stories – by nature of their mere construction – possess efficaciousness in and of themselves. This is why we spend the majority of our time with this movie watching its script and its characters pursue the story they inhabit. This is why Shyamalan operates under the presumptive delusion that his audience will get a kick out of cataloguing the meanings of fabricated mythology nouns like “scrunt” and “narf.” This is why Shyamalan can let Cleveland almost drown when it suits the purposes of the story, but later invests him with Aquaman breath-holding capabilities. This is why he names the nominal lady “Story.” And this is why Lady in the Water spends the majority of its duration chasing its tale, with Story sitting in the shower or lounging sexlessly in Cleveland’s pool house while the dumb bastard scrambles all over the apartment complex trying to gather up real-life corollaries for the dubious legend that Story communicates in awkward fits and starts. The fetishization of self-serving storytelling is also the reason Shyamalan casts himself as a writer whose words will save the world. While he would never subject us to something as repellent as an actual sex scene, he’s perfectly willing to wank off all over us.
The strange brew that results is a movie that wears suspense and fanciful fantasy on its sleeve, but manages to spend a lot of time in the hallway and the bathroom, trying to gather up enough narrative threads to spin an effective yarn. The origins of the movie’s quizzical nature are sowed in the banal exposition scenes, as Cleveland stands in the hallway, passing a cell phone back and forth with a hostile grandmother who doesn’t speak English. Cleveland is literally trying to find out the plot of the story he’s in, and the camera strands him in the corridor with irksome confidence. It doesn’t work, and the dialogue barely makes sense, but any pretense of real cohesion is dropped so early in the movie that it doesn’t matter. Critics Manohla Dargis and Michael Atkinson are concerned that M. Night Shyamalan might have “lost his marbles” or “lost his mind,” respectively. Would that it were true. Any madman worth his confetti doesn’t spend this much time deliberating over deus ex machina.
The kind of story-for-its-own-sake whimsy practiced here opens up the unraveling structure, creating a loosely woven canvas – much different from the laconic, locked-into-place, linear layout of The Sixth Sense or Signs. It also admits an intriguing, unreflective visual style. Most of the movie is shot with a camera that seems on the verge of head-butting residents of The Cove. An early poolside scene is covered with ashy murkiness, obscuring the action and faces as a key scene plays out.
Lady in the Water isn’t a heady enough mix of self-conscious clichés and kiddy post-modernism for the deliberate self-reflexive stuff to carry: when Bob Balaban’s stiff-backed film critic (ostentatiously named Farber, as in Manny) describes the scene he’s in and then sums up the movie up to that point, it’s pure tomfoolery, there for its own sake, much like the childish mythmaking of Lady in the Water.