The key to deciphering M. Night Shyamalan's fractured fairy tale, "Lady in the Water," is to remember that it is rooted in the mythology of Stephen Colbert and "The Colbert Report." It is a warning to Mankind about the dire threat posed by ferocious topiary bears in America today, and a salute to the gigantic, soaring eagle who swoops in to rescue Wet Ladies from pitiless ursine jaws and claws. Colbert oughtta sue.
As a bonus, there's a naked water nymph and some angry tree monkeys with mohawks... You think I'm making this up? No, but I wonder why Shyamalan felt he needed to, given the half-hearted way he's presented his sodden fairy tale in this movie.
Maybe the children's book is better at stimulating the imagination. Shyamalan says "Lady in the Water" grew out of a bedtime story he made up and continued improvising and embellishing for his daughters, and that's precisely the way it feels: improvised and protracted, nonsensically and unnecessarily, just for the sake of stringing us along. And, maybe, putting us to sleep.
But then, who am I to knock the work of the man who, in his own film, casts himself as a writer whose ideas will inspire a future leader who will save the world -- an artist whose work will not be fully understood in his own time, but only many years later, and who is willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of all Mankind? For he so loved the world that he gave his only narf...
I'm sorry. Don't believe me. I am the villain. OK, not me, precisely, but Film Criticism Itself, embodied by the splendid (movie critic word) Bob Balaban as Mr. Farber, who is this film's own resident newspaper movie critic, offering caustic, self-aware commentary on the shortcomings of "Lady in the Water" as it sloshes along. In Shyamalan's rickety mythology, Mr. Farber represents... well, nothing so much as the filmmaker's pre-emptive strike against the bad reviews he expects to receive for making this poorly written, stiffly directed, audience-insulting story-without-a-cause.
And yet, just because the priggish Mr. Farber criticizes a movie in the movie (and, implicitly, the one we're watching as well) for its endlessly belabored exposition, a lazy reliance on flat clichés, and for forcing characters to go around spewing their innermost thoughts in pedestrian dialog, that doesn't pardon "Lady in the Water" for blatantly committing every one of these amateurish blunders. On a deeper level (something Shyamalan's characters like to talk about, even though he hasn't bothered to create one for them, or us), Mr. Farber also epitomizes the movie's oppressive strategy of self-reflexive "comic relief" -- an approach that only highlights Shyamalan's disastrous failure of nerve. Because (the critic said) it's precisely the writer-director's refusal to commit to his own material that sinks the whole picture.
The idea of a suburban landscape inhabited by mythical creatures, where magic worlds of meaning can open up within a domesticated habitat of cement hardscape, swimming pools and turf grass, is a delicious one. It's been done in the past, and well: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Poltergeist" come to mind as marvelous Spielbergian examples. But Shyamalan doesn't approach the mystery and wonder of his influences.
"Lady in the Water" begins with a terrific shot, of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) slaying dragons -- or bugs -- underneath a kitchen sink. (Plumbing -- universal symbol for the return of the repressed!) Mr. Heep is the beleaguered, stuttering superintendent of an apartment building outside Philadelphia, conveniently named The Cove, that looks like a concrete-and-glass tower on the outside, but inside harbors the decorative pizzazz of the Madonna Inn. Each apartment has an extravagant theme to match the stereotypical traits and ethnicities of its tenant(s): There's the Exotic Oriental Room, the Tacky Jewish '60s Room (with soundtrack by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and probably clear plastic covers on the upholstery), the Philosophical Rock 'n' Roll Stoner Pad Room, the Musty Old Library Hermit Room, the Tasteful Asian Subcontinent Room...
This is the setting for Shyamalan's soggy bedtime story. A pre-credits animated stick-figure prologue sets up the film's fairy-tale foundation, and simultaneously sucks all the air out of it. You can feel the movie deflate before it's even started. The disembodied narration and cave-like drawings all but announce: There will be no mystery, no discovery, here -- everything is going to be explained and explained and explained in the most banal, literalistic fashion. No show. Just tell.
The narrator explains that there is an ancient race of narfs, who, in drawings at least, look like wiggly Kokopellis wearing trapezoids. They live in water and are desperate to communicate warnings to Man, but Man has forgotten how to listen. They are sort of like amphibious Al Gores. Anyway, the Kokopellis -- er, narfs -- send their young ones to dwell in swimming pools because chlorinated cee-ment ponds are near where Man lives -- all the better to get their message across to chosen human receivers called vessels. But there is great danger, because terrible beasts with red eyes and grassy fur called scrunts, who can flatten themselves so as to hide in the lawn, are lurking nearby, hungry for narf meat.
And yet, when the movie's titular narf shows up, which she does almost immediately, she does not wear a trapezoid. In fact, she wears nothing at all and she looks nothing like Kokopelli, which makes us wonder what the hell we were looking at in that obviously bogus and misleading cartoon at the beginning. This narf, her name (remember this) is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, child of Opie), and once the vessel sees her (she's not just a narf but a muse), she can return home to the Blue World by air, via the last of the giant eagles, the Great Eatlon. Ah, but the scrunts, they have other ideas, if they have ideas at all.
OK, but wait. We're later told there are also the, uh, Tzurdcklnx (sp?), simian tree-dwelling monsters who... no, no, that's not it. I don't really know how they fit in. Let me quote from Night's children's book tie-in that Explains It All for You: "Tartutic. They have one name, but there are three of them. They look like monkeys." (See? I got that part right.) "They are like guards sent to punish the scrunts when they break the rules. They climb down from the trees and out of the bushes and snatch the scrunts away." Wait for it.
I'm not anywhere near done yet, and neither is Shyamalan. As the book further explains: "There is more to tell of course, like why a scrunt might break the rule and try to attack a narf on the night the Great Eatlon comes... because there is a reason."
OK, stop. No. No, there is not a reason. All these convoluted "rules" -- including rules about what happens when somebody breaks the rules -- are as arbitrary as they are frivolous. Throughout the picture, Shyamalan coyly reveals one new "twist" in the story at a time, and each is nothing but another inconsequential red herring, another false obstacle over which the characters have to schlep in order to get from one story beat to the next. (Not only are they red herrings, they're dead horses. How's that for a mythological creature?)
"You have to believe that this all makes sense somehow!" says one character, in a shameless act of special pleading. But Shyamalan keeps playing cutesy nudge-nudge, wink-wink games with the audience, as if to say: "Hey, I know this is pretty silly -- and I want you to know that I know that. But you have to believe in it!" It's a movie that insists on the importance of fairy-tale mythology and storytelling that doesn't respect the integrity of mythology or know how to tell a story.
Of course, Shyamalan's movies -- "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "The Village" -- are essentially con games. They rely on misdirection and visual sleight-of-hand. They also require a measure of good faith and suspension of disbelief (tested, early in this picture, with the claim that Mr. Farber is both the film and book critic of a Philadelphia paper). But any con man or storyteller must, at the very least, convey to us the sense that he buys his own con, and Shyamalan is too afraid to commit. The low star rating isn't just for pretension or ineptitude, its for hypocrisy and cowardice, too.
Were I the late Joseph Campbell, who devoted his life to exploring how myths are not arbitrary shaggy dog stories but speak to the hunger for meaning deep within our species, I would will my spirit to return from the Land of the Dead, raise my hollowed body from my grave, and pelt this movie with rotten lotuses.
The director's deficiencies as a visual storyteller are also on fine display. Shyamalan doesn't establish a fairy tale setting for his stick-characters to inhabit because his fragmented images consistently cheat screen space. They're crowded, claustrophobic and disconnected from one another so that you can't quite tell where anybody is in relationship to anybody or anything else from one moment to the next. This is a sure way to destroy plausibility and suspense, and it's fatal to the apartment building pool party that should have been the movie's pulse-pounding climactic set piece. Shyamalan could learn from Spielberg and Brian De Palma about how to shoot these kinds of sequences, where characters move along fateful vectors toward their rendezvous with Destiny, meeting or missing one another at key moments. Check out "Carrie," "Munich," "The Untouchables"...
Eventually, Mr. Heep must summon the residents of The Cove and assign them the required roles in the story: The Healer, The Guide, The Guild. To get Story the narf back home again, it takes not just an Eatlon, it takes a Village. There's a ridiculous scene (in a not altogether bad way), where Jeffrey Wright (standing in for the auteur?) tries to extrapolate clues from a folded newspaper, prompting one of the tenants to exclaim: "Wow! He's hearing the voice of god from a crossword puzzle!" This is the closest "Lady in the Water" gets to a solid, provocative idea -- that we humans are stumbling in the dark, looking for signs and stories we can interpret to give meaning to a meaningless existence -- but, as executed, it just tips the movie's hand and shows us its cards. And in a game of Three-Card Monte like this, that's an illusion-shattering mistake.
In the end, Shyamalan takes his fantasy revenge against those damnable critics who try to explain everything in terms of archetypes and clichés by attacking his modular critic with an archetypal cliché. Having seen his share of hackneyed horror films, Mr. Farber describes and critiques his own (predictable) final scene in the film even as it is taking place. And, like Giamatti, Balaban is so good he almost pulls it off.
But honestly, the movie doesn't give Mr. Farber enough credit. Shyamalan told S.T. VanAirsdale at The Reeler: "Well, the movie is about storytelling. And so, you know, the idea's about honoring storytelling again and giving it reverence. And this particular guy [Mr. Farber] who thinks he's an expert on it is leading people in the wrong way."
In truth, that's not what happens at all. Mr. Heep asks the critic's advice (without telling him why) about storytelling conventions to help him identify what kinds of people might conform to the roles in the bedtime story. When things go wrong, Mr. Farber gets the blame. (“What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?" exclaims an outraged tenant. I don't know. A screenwriter, maybe?) But the movie ends up confirming that the critic was right all along. Mr. Heep has, in fact, misinterpreted the perfectly sound information Mr. Farber has given him, without which there would be no happy ending. (Doesn't that, in fact make Heep the real critic -- the Misinterpreter?)
So, I'm going to stand up for Mr. Farber. Because he's funnier and a more vivid presence than anything else in the patchwork story Shyamalan has cobbled together, you feel the movie couldn't even exist if he weren't there to ridicule it. If a fairy tale fails in the forest and there's nobody there to criticize it, does it make any sense? Sadly, even Mr. Farber couldn't decipher this mess.