It was just around the time when the giant eagle swooped out of the greater Philadelphia night to rescue a creature called a narf, shivering and nearly naked next to a swimming pool shaped like a collapsed heart, that I realized M. Night Shyamalan had lost his creative marbles. Since Shyamalan's marbles are bigger than those of most people, or so it would seem from the evidence of a new book titled The Man Who Heard Voices (and how!), this loss might have been a calamity, save for the fact that Lady in the Water is one of the more watchable films of the summer. A folly, true, but watchable.
A bedtime story that plays like a stab at a modern myth, Lady in the Water follows Shyamalan's sensationally entertaining breakout (The Sixth Sense), a pair of misfires (Unbreakable and Signs) and a raging bore (The Village). As before, this film involves characters who, when faced with the inexplicable, behave less like real people than idealized movie audiences: they believe.
Shyamalan is big on faith. He wants us to believe. In him. In film. In his films. To be swept away by that transporting swell of feeling that comes with love, sex, gods, the great outdoors and sometimes, though not often enough, the movies. Shyamalan wants to carry us away. He wants to be Steven Spielberg.
Of course even Spielberg is not Spielberg anymore (see Munich), meaning the former boy wonder of Hollywood is no longer content to tuck us into the basket on Elliott's bicycle in E.T. and pedal off to Neverland. Even when he is gleefully blowing the planet to smithereens, as he does in War of the Worlds, Spielberg takes on the important issues now, leaving the easy kids' stuff to manques like Shyamalan. This can happen when someone matures, or at least goes gray. Though in Hollywood — which is something of an enormous incubator, where embryonic personalities curl up in their own goo, kind of like Neo before he unplugs from the Matrix — growing up is sometimes awfully hard to do.
Lady in the WaterDirected by: M. Night ShyamalanStarring: Paul Giamatti (Cleveland Heep), Bryce Dallas Howard (Story), Bob Balaban (Harry Farber), Jeffrey Wright (Mr. Dury), Sarita Choudhury (Anna), Freddy Rodriguez (Reggie), Bill Irwin (Mr. Leeds)Running time: 108 minutesTaiwan release: Today
That's too bad, because Shyamalan has a nice way with actors, a fine eye and an actual vision of the world (scary but hopeful). Like Jerry Bruckheimer, he also knows how to buy great screen talent, no doubt at bargain rates. For this new film, he has tapped the excellent Paul Giamatti, who plays Shyamalan's hero, a building manager with the torturous name of Cleveland Heep, and, in smaller roles, the fine character actors Jared Harris and Jeffrey Wright. Also along for the strange ride are other familiar indie-film types like Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury and Bill Irwin, who seems content to sit in the dark here doing precious little.
Irwin won't be the only one in the dark, storywise and otherwise. For all its exposition — and, as a screenwriter, Shyamalan is certainly one Chatty Cathy — this film could have easily been called Lady in the Dark. It's obscure in more ways than one. Shot by the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his superb work for Wong Kar-wai (王家衛), Lady in the Water appears to have been lighted with a book of matches and a dying flashlight. The murky results are generally unlovely if occasionally striking, though, like Shyamalan's decision to have most of the actors deliver most of their lines in a hush, as if they were courtiers tendering precious gifts, the low illumination does help create an air of claustrophobic intimacy.