In 2002, a Newsweek cover story proclaimed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan "the next Stephen Spielberg". Two of his films, The Sixth Sense and Signs , made a combined $1.6 billion. Is it any surprise that the guy started believing his own press? When he turned in the screenplay for his new film, Lady in the Water , Disney, his usual studio, gently tried to tell him it wasn’t going to work. Ignoring them, he jumped ship for Warner Brothers, which probably thought it had scored a coup. It didn’t.
Lady in the Water is a self-conscious myth reminiscent of a bad ’50s science fiction short story. Its protagonist is a stuttering building supervisor named Cleveland Heep. In the swimming pool of his apartment complex, Heep discovers a "narf," a sea nymph played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She wears only a man’s shirt, and she apparently learned English in a land without contractions. She is being hunted by a wolf-like creature called a "scrunt". Though it’s hard to believe a major screenwriter could have such a tin ear, Heep must save the narf from the scrunt.
The narf, named Story, has been sent to find someone called "The Vessel". She knows only that he is a writer, and that she will awaken something in him that will change the world. The Vessel turns out to be a tenant named Vic, played by none other than Shyamalan himself. Story tells Vic the good news that the book he’s writing will "be the seed of great change". The bad news is that some time in the future, he will be murdered for his ideas.
Shyamalan seems to believe that the world is a broken place that only his movies can redeem. Cleveland Heep, played by Paul Giamatti somewhere in the middle of his range from specific to sentimental, is yet another martyr. He ministers to his lonely tenants, whose lives have no purpose until he gives them one. These secondary characters are no deeper than their function in the plot; they are jigsaw puzzle pieces.
One of them is Harry Farber, a movie critic, named for critic Manny Farber, played by Bob Balaban. Farber stands for all that is jaded and faithless, claiming that there is no originality left in the world. It’s not spoiling much to say that he comes to a bad end. By killing a critic, Shyamalan is hedging against a critical backlash — and he’s been getting forty lashes, all right.
He has even tried to inoculate his movie against the possible cynicism of his audience. Lady in the Water ‘s opening narration says, "The narfs tried to warn mankind that it has lost its way – but man may have forgotten how to listen." It all smacks of megalomania. Mankind, burned by Shyamalan’s terrible last film, The Village , isn’t interested. The high-priced Lady made only $18 million in its opening weekend, a disaster by summer movie standards.
Tellingly, Shyamalan’s production company is called "Blinding Edge". Its logo is a man arching his back, muscles tense, diving face first into a bright light. Like Icarus, Shyamalan has flown too close to the sun, and the result is a bloody mess. It’s possible to shake your head at his lack of judgment and still admire his sincerity. He is certain to produce more good work; he just needs to find a screenwriter, fast, and stop with the whole auteur thing.
Lady in the Water is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.