By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Shyamalan seems to be off his meds with this very odd and sometime extremely technically botched cross-themed film.
If I were to come up with a single word to describe what I felt while watching Lady In The Water it would be: confusion.
No, not the plot or story… it’s actually kind of a fairy tale brought to life, and is about redemption and moving past a horrible tragedy. What confused me is what is this movie supposed to BE?
At times it seemed like a suspense thriller (typical of Shyamalan), at other times a very tender story, but then it also veered of into weird comedy and odd (for the film) lingering shots of “the lady”. And then there was something that happened repeatedly throughout the film that caused the audience to giggle uncontrollably during the most inappropriate scenes.
The film opens with a crude animation telling the story of how mankind (or is that peoplekind these days?) had a relationship with creatures who lived in the ocean long ago and looked like us. These creatures were full of sage wisdom that they dispensed to us poor dullard surface dwellers. Due to some ancient real estate boom (I kid) as people migrated inland, they lost touch with the ocean dwellers, which of course is when we started going downhill as a race into warfare and the like.
Now these very noble creatures, for whatever reason (which is never disclosed) decided recently to start trying to contact us again, sacrificing some of their youngest members on a journey from which some would not return due to dark forces that work against them.
Cut to an apartment complex where Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) lives a very mundane existence as the handyman/manager. The opening scene is actually quite funny, as he tries to kill some unseen large, hairy insect in one of the apartments as the female members of the family who live there squeal incessantly. From there we are introduced to some of the key folks who live there, via a tour given by him to a new arrival who happens to be a movie critic (played by Bob Balaban).
It really is quite a cross section of characters, from a bunch of guys living together that seem to be trapped in the 60’s (actually I don’t know when the film is supposed to take place) to a recluse, a trampy Asian co-ed who lives with her mom, and an old woman who rescues animals.
There seems to be some sort of problem with the pool on the premises, which no one is supposed to use after dark. The manager knows someone has been using it, and somehow their use of it is gumming up the pool filter. Soon he spots her, but after she submerges and does not resurface he becomes concerned, dives in after her, and almost drowns, only to find himself waking up in his own bed, seeing a trail of wet footprints on the floor.
It turns out that the mysterious lady (played with an almost ethereal quality by Bryce Dallas Howard) has rescued him, and seems to be very childlike emotionally. He cares for her as a father figure, and determines to get her home a bit later after she rests as she seems to be very tired and afraid of something outside. Later on he tries to take her out to the pool, saying he’ll bring her some coffee while she’s asleep in his arms. This scene actually confused me as he was talking like it was morning but it was still pitch black outside. Anyway, we see (vaguely) the creature that she is afraid of as it tries to attack them. It looks vaguely like a wolf, but of course that’s not what it is.
As things unfold we learn about her and what she needs to accomplish in order to return home safely. It turns out that there is an old Asian bedtime story which details exactly what her background and situation is, and gives a hazy idea of what needs to be done to get her home.
We find out that she needs to meet with someone who is staying at the apartment and is a writer. The super heads out to non-chalantly ask various residents questions about writing to try and discern who the person is. Eventually he does find the person, but this is only the beginning of what needs to be figured out. Many of the residents need to pull together before it is all over in order to accomplish what needs to be done, in a bit of validation that yes, we ARE worth saving.
As to the “weird factor”, I almost don’t know quite where to start. The tone of the film is wildly all over the place, from scary to somber to almost slapstick. Shyamalan plays a key role in the film, and although I thought it was cool when he first appeared, I thought it would be just a quick cameo. Seeing him in quite a bit of the film was a bit distracting for me, perhaps compounded by the fact that it was just so… odd. Then there was also the way in which he obviously portrayed her relationship with the super as a father/daughter thing and her as an innocent, yet Shyamalan made use of slow, leisurely pans of her bare legs up to the shirt she was wearing (and nothing else) throughout the film. I just kept wondering what the point of that was? (Besides the obvious, of course.)
One thing that struck me is that he really seemed to have it in for movie critics in this film. His portrayal of the critic in this film could not have been worse, really. He just made the guy out to be pompous, arrogant, presumptuous, and just plain wrong. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I write reviews, but he really seemed to have an axe to grind.
The other thing that actually astounded me about this film was the appearance of boom microphones. You know what those are, those little microphones that you sometimes see dip down into the scene from above when watching a sitcom or newscast. Well here, I saw a mic pop into the scene and my jaw hit the floor! I mean we’re not talking some newbie director here, right? Well that turned out to be only the first of MANY shots of boom mics appearing in scenes throughout the ENTIRE film! Now this was distracting on many levels. First, I kept thinking “How in the heck did he MISS that, SO many times and in so many scenes??”, next, whenever a mic appeared (and sometimes it was two) most of the audience giggled or laughed. This happened during scenes where it was obvious that he wasn’t going for an intentional laugh. And third, I kept thinking, “OK, this guy’s a pro… he must have done this on purpose, but WHY??”
At this moment I still don’t have a clue.
All in all this was an extremely odd piece of work. I read a review somewhere that bizarrely compared this to the wonderful The Princess Bride. I only saw the most tenuous of connections and in only one scene. If you take scenes out of context, much of it was very good. But the juxtaposition of strange humor with tense/scary scenes combined with the countless appearances of boom mics just made for a very odd experience.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to anyone and I doubt many others who’ve seen it will recommend it either.