July 23, 2006

Movie Review: Lady in the Water

M. Night Shyamalan has been on a bit of slide of late. After his fantastic The Sixth Sense and even better Unbreakable, he has hit a bit of a rut. Signs was good, not great, and The Village was a big disappointment. Even with the downward slope his movies have been on of late, I still wanted to believe that the slide would stop here. The trailers looked good, I like Paul Giamatti, and Bryce Dallas Howard gave an incredible performace in that bomb that was The Village, with those going for it, I hade some cautiously guarded hopes. Unfortunately the stink seeped through the door and I was faced with yet another disappointing film.

As I walked out of the theater, one word kept repeating itself over and over in my head. That word was "pretentious." Perhaps a better way of putting it is "trying too hard." It is almost as if Shyamalan picks the twist or the high concept and then tries to build everything else around it, it doesn't get boiled down to its essence. The past couple of movies lack any type of organic development, rather it is much more mechanical, pieces of a puzzle fitting together rather than the melding of words.

Lady in the Water tells the story of the attempted reconnect between the people living above the water with the people living below. It seems that the story of the inhabitants of this so-called Blue World and their attempts to rejoin the relationship with humans has become the stuff of legend, including what seems to be a very well detailed bedtime story.

The central character of this tale is Cleveland Heep, played by Paul Giamatti. He is the superintendant of an apartment building called The Cove. He is a quiet, agreeable, man who is just making a living. The tenants of the building are a wide array of people, with vastly different personalities. By the end of the movie, this disparate group of people will be called together to work towards something that is greater than their own lives.

The structure of the movie is maddening, it is kind of like an old role playing game. You know the kind of game, where you get so far and then have to return somewhere to get some more exposition on the next step, and you have to repeat this over and over. Heep learns something and then goes back to the one person familiar with the story to find out the next part so that he can get to the next level, and so on and so forth. He goes around to the building filling them in on their roles, so that everyone can be involved.

I was completely frustrated by the way many of the characters would sleepwalk through their parts. No one was asking the obvious questions that would need to be answered. The main question that seems to be purposefully ignored, lest the plot fall apart, is "Why?" It's not that I think anyone would really be able to answer the question, but no one seems interested in knowing, they just blindly do. I know that this ties in with the whole faith theme that runs through the undercurrents of the film, but even with faith comes questions. Blind faith, as advocated here, is not something that should be taken lightly, and could be more damaging than one may suspect.

By the time we get to the end, my interest was waning. The story never really clicked and never developed anything beyond the surface. The reasons behind what they were doing, or, again, why they were doing it never came into the equation. What was the intended result? Sure, it tells how everyone is special and unique and will eventually learn their purpose. That's about as deep as it gets. In retrospect, it seems rather shallow, but it is presented in such a way as to appear transcendant.

Sadly, this lack of any worthwhile story, and underwhelming resolution greatly overshadows the good that is here. That is the most frustrating aspect of this film, as well as The Village. They both have a lot to like, but the failures in the storytelling present a nearly insurmountable obstacle to enjoying the movie.

The acting is quite good, primarily from Paul Giamatti. Giamatti's Heep is a delightful everyman, a performance that is easy to relate to and feels genuine, plus he seems to be the only truly inquisitive member of the bunch. Likewise, Bryce Dallas Howard gives an intriguing performance as Story, the Lady of the title, she captures an intiguing sense of the ethereal, but seems to lack true substance. Bob Balaban also turns in a fun performance, or maybe I just liked his critic character. Cindy Cheung, as Young-Soon Choi, provides some funny comic relief, as well as being the needed conduit to expostion. On the flip side, Shyamalan has injected himself more into this film than the past, he plays a significant role in this one, and it didn't work for me. That word pretentious is creeping back into my mind, I think he should leave the acting to the actors, his scenes were very flat.

The film was beautifully shot. There is some great cinematography delivering some beautiful images. I also enjoyed how the dialogue would run together at times, remniniscent of Robert Altman, and how the angles did not always focus on the speaker, but on the reactions, despite the fact that they seem out of place, interesting work.

In the end, I think that M. Night Shyamalan is an extraordinary talent. However, he has not shown any real growth in his work. I believe he should try working from someone else's written word, or perhaps try working in another genre. His last two films may have been disappointments, but there is no denying the ability he possesses, he just in a bit of a slump.

Bottomline. Some fine acting, wonderfully shot, yet the end result feels so incomplete. The story falls flat, and it drags the rest of the work down as a result. I cannot recommend this film, although it may be worthy of a rental. All I hope for is that Shyamalan does not let this tailspin last any longer.

Not Recommended.
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