Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
As expected, there’s a secret to be uncovered in M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, only this time, rather than a child seeing dead people or a town of terrified hippies trying to shelter their families from harm, we come to face to face with the director’s crippling, almost monumental stupidity as a filmmaker. Sure, Lady in the Water is the mystic-in-training’s worst film, but it also happens to be the most insipid, reckless, jaw-droppingly inept motion picture of the past quarter-century; a film that revels in its smug superiority and sense of wonder, practically daring less “enlightened” folks to call it on the carpet. It’s a movie that smacks us about the face with a plea for innocence and the power of fables, only to knock us to the ground, jump on our chest, and punish us further with one of the most laughable screenplays in recorded history. Dialogue drones on and on and on with stiff self-importance, and characters bounce around like sanctimonious pinballs, all wide-eyed, noble, and fully immersed in the insanity set before them. As such, this is far from a self-conscious, ironic stab at the modern fairy tale; setting us up so that we can stand back and see the artifice. No, Shyamalan believes this shit with every last breath, and he makes no apologies for riding this doomed jet to its mountainside obliteration. I have yet to see his public defense of this monstrosity, but I have little doubt that he’s already crafted a clever strategy; you know, something that holds anyone who lives in the real world and dares think with a functioning brain in utter contempt.
Rarely does every single element in a movie fail, but from the ponderous, eye-rolling prologue — clumsy animation meant to describe what happened to the creatures of the sea and how they were driven back to their world and how the greedy men of the land….oh, I don’t fucking know — this film established itself as a closed world of complete madness; sort of what you’d expect to hear if left alone for two hours with a homeless drunk (or a barber) bent on “explaining it all.” It never leaves the Cove apartment complex in Philadelphia, and the hero of sorts is Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a career-killing turn to be sure, but also the most ridiculous character name I’ve ever heard outside of a Zucker Brothers parody. He’s your typical sad sack: a man with a past, who has come to this complex to start over as a superintendent and hopefully, forget that his family was murdered during a burglary. One fateful night, he is visited by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a water nymph who speaks of strange creatures and “the blue world,” and in such a hushed fashion that we know it’s Really Fucking Important. Heep instantly takes her ramblings to heart, you know, exactly as anyone would when a half-naked teenager shows up at your apartment. She’s got to get back, you see, and she needs to find a healer, a translator, and a great writer before some giant eagle comes to take her away. Fuck me repeatedly in the ass, please!
This little turn gives the screenplay the excuse to meet everyone, from the Asian stereotypes (old dragon lady with ancient secrets to tell, as well as the young whore who shakes her ass like she’s channeling her Bangkok streetwalking days) to the Mexican stereotypes (a family of, oh, several dozen crammed into a tiny place, and everyone is loud as a freight train). There’s also an old woman who loves animals and seems to have the gift of life, an Italian stereotype who only works out one side of his body (and who turns out to have more powers than he ever imagined), and the worst creation of all, a cynical, disbelieving critic (Bob Balaban) who is dispatched with great violence because he’s too jaded, and sour, and so has no place in this bedtime story. His appearance is, in its way, Shyamalan’s way of telling his detractors to fuck off, as their obsession with facts, reality, and the intellect has ruined the world. As the prologue and much of what Story tells us to be true, the world is on the brink of total disaster because mankind has ceased to be child-like, as in full of wonder and in touch with the possible. As we no longer think with our hearts and accept that myths, superstitions, and fables are as true as we want to believe they are, we are lonely, cruel, and prone to violence. I’m not sure what newspapers Shyamalan’s reading, but no less than 95% of the world’s problems — from terrorism, to war, to the erosion of civil liberties in our own country — are the direct result of people in high places placing great stock in the palpably untrue; in fucking fairy tales. Reason has been battling falsehood for centuries, and here we have a well-funded filmmaker asking the forces of light to give up without a fight. With this film, then, he becomes the most dangerous man alive. Stop him before he turns on a camera again.
It should surprise no one that M. Night himself plays the key to all of this, as he is the struggling writer who must be inspired to finish his book “The Cookbook,” which has been foretold by Story to be the salvation of us all. At some point in the future, she whispers, a young boy from the Midwest will read this book, be inspired to become a great orator, and eventually assume the Presidency. Apparently disregarding Congress and the Supreme Court entirely, this one man will change our unfortunate course and, I’m assuming, ban all wars and fighting and mean stuff cause like we’re all connected and everyone’s life has meaning. To make matters more egomaniacal, Shyamalan’s writer — named Vick Ran — will be assassinated for his efforts, adding martyrdom to an already unworldly narcissism. He’s fine with that, apparently, and in a convenient turn, we don’t hear a single word of this unparalleled masterpiece. If I know what moves the average nitwit in this nation, I imagine its content is pulled from a large body of Oprah’s program, or perhaps a Maya Angelou poem or two, which means that it’s little more than a push to see how we’re all the same and that God loves us all, despite our insistence that we’re meant to fight it out for power and control. There’s also likely a little old fashioned populism about; how certain people have too much while others don’t have enough, and how the only war worth fighting is that battle we should all wage against bigotry and intolerance. And all this can be had if we only listen to the fairies, and nymphs, and cooing little voices inside our hearts. For Shyamalan, it’s a vision of heaven; for me, and anyone else who stopped believing in Santa Claus around the first grade, it’s the perfect, unadulterated picture of hell on earth.
Normally I have little respect for the crowds that inhabit your average multiplex, but on this night, I couldn’t help but love the little shits. Howls of laughter filled the theater, and at least one couple stormed out in disgust, snickering all the way. And about the time one of these wolves made of grass (called “scrunts” for some reason known only to M. Night’s psychiatrist) burst through a door to bite young Story, I thought I had wandered into a comedy. Despite a booming soundtrack, crashing thunder, and gloomy rain — all in service of the somber theme — I half expected Leslie Nielsen to spring from the shadows and wink in our direction. No! Howard did not just utter the line, “I do not wish to be the Madame Narf!” That precocious little kid did not just solve the mystery of the universe with the help of a crossword puzzle and a cereal box. And no, the biggest loner of them all did not just leave his apartment and announce that he’d like to be a kid again and, you know, how can he help? And I’ll be damned if that eagle didn’t show up to take Story away, flying through the rain-filled skies squawking its defiant cry. With an abruptness that made me think the projector exploded in an act of suicide, the film ended, reminding us once again who was responsible for this crime against cinema. When it came to a conclusion, I was frozen — utterly numb and unable to speak. I had nothing to say; I was shocked, confused, and, surprisingly, so stunned that I couldn’t even register simple anger. Even now, the only coherent blast worth imparting to you all is that, in its supreme silliness, it achieves a new level of wrong. It is, well, in the parlance of Shyamalan himself, legendary in its awfulness. It’s the future standard for everyone to follow. You can fuck up, dude, and hell, you can even lose a whole lot of money, but please, don’t pull a Lady in the Water. None of us are that strong.