With special guest critic Adam Lefton
To the list of mythical creatures that sound like they came out of your nose - Snorks, Snarf, and Smurfs - you can now add Narfs, and Scrunts... and Paul Giammati - thanks to the dark, paranoid mind of M. Night Shyamalan. After failing at the box office with his only two films set outside Philadelphia - Signs follows a family of farmers as they deal with an alien invasion, and The Village an Amish-like town coping with monsters in the woods - Night played it safe with Lady in the Water. Despite the tropical grass, weather and styles, Lady's apartment complex, The Cove, is in fact set in the City of Brotherly Love. This landlocked metropolis is the last place you'd expect to host an earthy, aquatic tale, and if it weren't for a fat animal control inspector's comment about the improbability of wolves making Philly home, you'd guess it's Florida or some other coast littered with white trash.
So Night's back on familiar stomping grounds in his latest flick. But don't hype yourself up for a big surprise ending; this bedtime story is so crude, Shyamalan must've adapted it from cavemen drawings. The film's origins can be traced back to good ol' fashioned family values. It's 10 p.m. in the Shyamalan house and Night needs to assure his two little girls that there's still a sliver of good in the world, so he concocts a tall tale about grass-backed dogs who thirst for the blood of pale leading ladies living under swimming pools to put his kids at ease. They thoroughly enjoy it, so naturally the next stop's Hollywood! Night had to fight (and leave) Disney to make this film, and it looks like he'll be the only one claiming victory. Night, and the giant soaring eagle that saves day.
Unlike the usual trickery you expect from a Shyamalan project, Lady in the Water's plot is straight-up mediocre. If you gave a kid crayons and told the little bastard to draw a story, it'd go something like this: In the dead of night, a naked lady emerges from The Cove's swimming pool. She hails from the magical Blue World (see Crayola's Cobalt Blue). Her name is Story; she predicts the future; and to return home she must find the one person she is destined to inspire. In this case, a writer unsurprisingly played by M. Night, himself.
The moment she reveals her quest, you get the sneaking suspicion that this movie is about more than just saving the world. Lady's a glaringly self-conscious take on the bedtime tale; it's an allegory for Night's struggle to find a story of his own, and cope with the fact that Hollywood stopped proclaiming him the Messiah after The Sixth Sense.
After Bryce Dallas-Howard makes her mission clear through a game of charades in the shower - because she's not allowed to, as the old children's adage goes, "use her words" - the lucky group of gullible tenants who have been pre-ordained to assist her - The Guardian, The Symbolist, The Guild, and The Healer, otherwise known as a super haunted by his past, a crossword puzzle junkie, a smoking circle of stoners, and a crazy cat lady - band together to get her safely to pool's edge where a giant, magical eagle can swoop down and take her back to The Blue World. There, she will be hailed as the "Madame Narf." But the bush-like beast who prowls the grounds outside is determined to scratch her to death before she fulfills her destiny. And the angry orphaned mutt isn't the only problem. In a line befitting of a schoolgirl picked on by her more popular classmates, Bryce whines to Paul, "I don't want to a Madame Narf!" If your giggles subside in time, you'll learn that our madame-to-be is a clumsy loser in The Blue World, a runt of the Narf litter with dark-horse odds to be crowned "Madame."
Sadly, Bryce's success hinges not on defeating her insecurities but remaining helpless and letting the misfits of The Cove do all the work. Following the rules Giammatti learns from an old Asian resident who moonlights as a Narf scholar, the troupe devises a plan relying on the fact that a Scrunt (blood-thirsty grass-hound) can't attack the Narf (Lady In The Shower) on the night she inspires her human. Ostensibly, this would make the residents' strategy foolproof, just make sure Bryce is back in the Blue World by night's end. Unfortunately, they're dealing with a rogue Scrunt who will stop at nothing to bring this Madame down. When their plan fails, Paul Giamatti and his cultish crew do the only sensible thing: recruit new members and recast. Despite Paul being 100% sure of everyone's role in Story's salvation, he's... how to put this gently...? WRONG.
Places, everybody! Take two!
The script fumbles like the sloppy bedtime story it is. Giammatti spends more time in the water than the Lady, and has an ungodly ability to hold his breath while spelunking to Story's underwater lair. The collection of human artifacts he finds there is too extensive for a creature who's only been wreaking havoc on the pool's filter for only a few days, reminding us of Ariel's kleptomania in The Little Mermaid. This begs the question: has Night really moved on since parting ways with the mouse?
The only thing sure of itself in Lady is M. Night Shyamalan's ego. He includes an arrogant and bumbling film critic, who offers neither wisdom nor wit with his insistence upon viewing the world through formulaic film theory. With the character's brutal demise in the laundry room, Night effectively lashes out at the ignorant buffoons who never understand his genius. At'll learn ya, wordsmiths of the press! Don't mess with Night or he'll have a rabid Chia Pet suddenly attack you for no reason! You didn't like those fake spiky creatures in The Village? How do you like this real spiky creature eating your intestines? Though it seems that brutally killing the critic did little to dissuade the multitude of bad reviews of Lady.
And thus, Lady in the Water surfaces only in the sea of Shymalan's self-worth. But after shelling out ten bucks to endure the madness, you'll find yourself wishing she'd just drowned.
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