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Taking Another Look at Lady in the Water

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The film: Lady in the Water

Have I seen it before? Yes, in the theater.

How the DVD got to my shelf: I bought a pre-viewed copy from Blockbuster on sale.

The DVD viewing experience: Not bad.

My expectations were relatively low going into this screening. What I remembered from seeing it at the movie theater was enjoyment tempered by disappointment. But I did end up buying a copy of the DVD, so it wasn’t that bad, right?

A lot of people adamantly say, "Yes, it was." Critics and everyday audiences alike were underwhelmed by Lady in the Water, making it easily the least popular of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Take a look at his record starting with his breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, in 1999 (box office grosses from The Numbers):

  • The Sixth Sense grossed $293,506,292 in the U.S. and $662,506,292 worldwide. It gets 8.2 out of 10 stars on IMDb, and an 84 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Unbreakable, $94,999,143 in the U.S. and $248,099,143 worldwide; 7.2 of 10 stars on IMDb; 68 percent fresh.
  • Signs, $227,965,690 in the U.S. and $408,265,690 worldwide; 6.9 of 10 stars on IMDb; 74 percent fresh.
  • The Village, $114,197,520 in the U.S. and $260,197,520 worldwide, 6.6 of 10 stars on IMDb; 42 percent rotten.
  • Lady in the Water, $42,285,169 in the U.S. and $72,785,169 worldwide; 6.0 of 10 stars on IMDb; 24 percent rotten.

    Lady in the Water inspired an IMDb message board thread titled "List your bottom 5 movies of all time." Critics lamented the film's mediocre magic, blasted its muddled plot, and chastised its self-indulgent director.

    Maybe they’re right. The film is flawed, scattered and plagued by creatures with hokey names. Its story can sound a little silly, but ultimately it strikes me as a decent bedtime tale that makes a moderately enjoyable film: A narf named Story travels to an apartment complex in Philadelphia via a swimming pool, and must be seen by a specific person so that he will be inspired to write something that will change the world. Grass-backed, dog-like creatures named scrunts hide in the yards nearby waiting to attack, but are allegedly kept at bay by fear of the huge monkey-like Tartutic. Rules govern the scrunts' actions, but they break them and go after Story anyway. People in the apartment complex – specifically those with special powers, a Guardian, a Symbolist, a Guild, and perhaps a Healer – have to help keep her safe so that a giant eagle, the Great Eatlon, can take her safely back to the Blue World.

    Yes, the Blue World. Where the narfs live.

    For me, vocabulary was the film’s most glaring flaw. I appreciated the ability of most of the actors to utter words like “narf” and “scrunt” as if they weren’t saying silly things that remain just as silly the 50th time you hear them.

    Looking critically at the film, I can recognize other flaws too. Maybe it is pretentious for Shyamalan to play the writer who will change the world with his incredible, challenging ideas. Yes, it’s a giant stretch to blame the “book and film critic” when apartment manager Cleveland Heep chooses the wrong people as the Guardian, Symbolist, and Guild (when all the critic did was describe each person's roles and activities accurately). Yes, Jeffrey Wright’s lines were stilted by wooden phrasing that seemed unnatural, even for a person who “adores” words.

    Still, here I am feeling defensively fond of the film. I have yet to watch a Shyamalan movie I didn’t like – I even enjoyed The Village enough to watch in twice in theaters. A lot of people don’t consider him skillful at handling his subject matter’s deeper themes, which is indeed a legitimate concern when you have a writer-director who wants his films to say or mean something. If you go into a story with the intent of providing illumination of some kind, of plumbing the depths of spiritual interest, of observing and commenting on the experience of humanity, then it’s pretty easy to get too heavy-handed, to fumble the story/characters/plot, to get self-serious and self-congratulatory, and defensive.

    But none of this is so prevalent in Lady in the Water that I feel compelled to pan it. It isn't ruined by apparent hostility toward its film critic character, who dies a violent (off-camera) death. I don't find the film, or Shyamalan's other movies, preachy or distractingly pretentious. I appreciate his interest in the spiritual and personal human experience of his characters. Lady in the Water's faults become more and more glaring if I stare at them long enough, but then I remember its strengths, and my impression as I watched it, and I remember that I like it.

    I like the music and the composition of frames. I like scenes like the first one involving Cleveland, Story and apartment tenant Anna Ran unfolding clues about the Guild, Guide and Symbolist. Most of all, I like Paul Giamatti and his sad, resigned apartment complex manager.

    This is really Cleveland Heep’s story. The narfs, the scrunts, the visionary writer – they are vessels of the story, or intentional distractions from it. When we learn that Story has come to see (or be seen by) a writer, we presume he is the Important Central Human Character. But he turns out to be a side character, just one of the many eclectic people who populate the apartment complex.

    The writer isn’t Cleveland, whose past and present turn out to be quite different from each other. He’s like many people – changed by circumstances beyond his control, heavily laden with guilt, and he has settled into a belief that he is of no particular value. His pain and gentle concern for Story stirred me, and still do. Giamatti anchors the film, and if you focus more on him you find at least one story worth listening to: that of Cleveland Heep. I am happy his is on my DVD shelf, should I want to revisit it again.

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