As an aspiring screenwriter and former Drama kid, I’m often tempted to write characters into my scripts that I could theoretically play… but I try to be sensible about it, and not let my own ego distort the story. Apparently M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t share my reservations, as evidenced by Lady in the Water (2006), a modern-day fairy tale in which Bryce Dallas Howard plays ‘Story’, an ethereal, waifish water-nymph, who risks life and limb to become the muse for a disenchanted author (Shyamalan), whose “thoughts on our cultural problems and leaders and stuff” are destined to inspire one particular young boy to become The Bestest President Ever!* Now, imho, if you’re going to cast yourself as a vessel for divine wisdom, you’d damn well better have the acting chops and charisma to carry it off… which Mr. Shyamalan most certainly does not. I understand that the point of the story is that even the most ordinary person can achieve greatness, given a nudge in the right direction, but that doesn’t excuse how charmless his character actually is, and the below-par performance he delivers in the role… or the way he seems to drag down everyone around him, including the stunningly beautiful Sarita Choudhury, who plays his slightly vapid and inconsequential sister ‘Anna’. It saddens me that a fable which began as a bedtime story Shyamalan invented to entertain his own daughters, should concern a male hero saving a (passive, mostly mute) female muse, who then inspires a male author to motivate a future male leader… while the womenfolk cheer them on, and feed them cookies. Meh.
While I have a fairly low opinion of Shyamalan as a writer and an actor, I’ve always respected his ability as a director, but even that fails him here… I mean, isn’t it generally considered a good idea to point the camera at the person who’s talking during a conversation? To cut back and forth between the characters, to cover the interplay between them… not just keep the listener in frame the entire time, with nothing but a blurry shoulder or back to suggest where the voice we hear is coming from? I can see why you’d do that in a Thriller or a Mystery flick, where the speaker’s identity is supposed to remain a secret until the big reveal… but here it’s used most often during the friendly banter scenes between Paul Giamatti’s stuttering maintenance man and a cute young college-student played by Cindy Cheung. Weirdly, the camera’s wandering eye also hampers one of Shyamalan’s own big scenes. There’s a whole build-up about how when Story finally meets the author she’s been sent to inspire, he’ll experience a kind of instant enlightenment, signalled by a feeling of pins and needles in his soul (or something)… but when that life-changing encounter occurs, his character is out-of-focus and almost out-of-shot in the immediate foreground, as a crystal-clear Giamatti dithers around in the background fussing with a random prop on a shelf. WTF!? If a prophet on the cusp of his holy “Eureka!” moment doesn’t deserve a close-up, then who the hell does? As an example of how a true auteur would have played that scene, just look at the way Jeunet enshrined his heroine’s illumination in the film Amélie, after she realised the true identity of the photo-booth “ghost”. Sadly, Shyamalan has a pesky habit of trying to “ground” supernatural events in a staid, tedious approximation of “reality”… even while that supposed “reality” allows room for a cartoonish grotesque like ‘Reggie’ the lop-sided weightlifter (Freddy Rodríguez), who has chosen to over-develop the right-hand side of his body, as some sort of attention-grabbing science experiment. Oy vey!
As with Signs, I found myself wincing at these supposed jokes, and chuckling heartily at all the sad, serious moments. For me the biggest laugh in the whole two hours came when Giamatti’s character returned to his cottage to find Story reading his private journal, and she greeted him with this out-of-the-blue, on-the-nose info-dump: “Your thoughts are very sad. Most are of one night. A night a man entered your home when you were not there. He stole many things and killed your wife and children. That is when you stopped being happy. You were a doctor. I am very sorry for you. You believe you have no purpose.” ‘Kay. Still, even that’s less annoying than the way the majority of the (seemingly endless) Story-related exposition is delivered second-hand via “wacky” translation scenes. Ack!
The weird part is, I do admire Shyamalan’s commitment to channelling his own spiritual beliefs through his work… and if the movies he made were as good as the ones he talks about making in the “behind the scenes” featurettes, then I’d probably be a huge fan… but sadly his perception of what he’s creating never seems to bear much relation to what actually appears on the screen. I’d feel a lot guiltier about ragging on him so much, if he hadn’t vented his own petty gripes by making one of the major antagonists of the movie a cynical, contemptible film critic (Bob Balaban), who gets savaged by a monster after delivering a smug monologue about how he’s definitely going to survive because he knows so much about narrative conventions. Gah! An even more grating scene is the one where the good-guys realise that the advice the critic gave them regarding how Story’s “story” would play out was misleading, and they all curse him for being such an arrogant dick, even though he was simply responding to a vague and hypothetical question, rather than instructing them how to actually behave in their real lives. How dare he not be a mind-reader with precognitive abilities! How dare he let them take his words as gospel, and not encourage them to get a second opinion! How dare he exist at all!
* I don’t really understand why Story couldn’t just cut out the middleman and pay future-president-boy a personal visit. Don’t his parents have a pool? Don’t they ever take him on trips to the seaside? No, apparently they’re too busy sitting around discussing this awesome book they’ve read, and all the mind-blowing ideas it contained.