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Lady in the Water
Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   M. Night Shyamalan (writer, director)
Genre:   Fantasy
Review Date:   July 26, 2006
RevSF Rating:   5/10 (What Is This?)

"You're really interested in this story, Mr. Heep." — Young-Soon

When I reviewed The Village in 2004, I reminded everyone of the Shyamalan Movie Checklist. So I'll wait here a moment while you go and refresh your memory before diving into his new flick, Lady in the Water.

. . .

Okay. Ready? M. Night's movies work best when you know next to nothing when you go in. So I went out of my way to avoid Lady in the Water spoilers, set reports, and all that. I saw the poster, watched the first preview, and then went to see it.

Here's where it gets tricky. I need to review this flick for you, but keep as many of its secrets as I can so that it works best for you. This is pretty much the standard Reviewer's Dilemma, but with Shyamalan movies it's more of a challenge. Telling anything really substantive about the movie could possibly lead into spoiler territory. And most reviewers, sadly, just drive straight there and tell you everything.

After The Sixth Sense, most critics have been less than kind to M. Night. Most seem to think that he's been unable to hit the same level he reached there, and called each film a disappointment. Well, he has apparently developed his own feelings about reviewers.

One of this movies side characters is annoying, opinionated, rude, and the only way he could be made more unlikable is if he kicked a baby into the pool. His job: movie critic.

I'm sure this works wonders to endear him to most professional critics. I'm a strictly small-time critic and thought it was amusing, if mean. Thing is, there's a very good reason why he's in the movie, and the way he is. Lady in the Water is a fairy tale, and like most tales, it's heavily draped in metaphor. This time Shyamalan's telling a story about stories. And all stories have critics.

M. Night's movies have a core message, and are full of metaphors and symbolism. It's part of what's so good about them. In his previous works, the metaphors were subtle. This time, it seems like he's tired of people not "getting it." So he bludgeons you about the head and shoulders with the metaphors to ensure you understand what each character represents.

Here's what I feel safe telling you about the story. Mr. Heep (Paul "Amazing Screw-On Head" Giamatti) is the supervisor of an apartment building in Philadelphia filled with a cast of quirky characters. One night, as he's getting ready for bed, he sees someone splashing in the building's pool. As swimming in it after dark is off-limits, he heads out to find out who it is and meets a young girl (Bryce Dallas "Spider-Man 3" Howard ).

Mr. Heep discovers her name is Story (get it?) and is a type of nymph. One of the building's tenants, Mrs. Choi (June Kyoto Lu) knows the tale about Story's of nymphs. Ms. Choi is reluctant to tell Mr. Heep what she knows, so he has to get it from her in snatches. It doesn't help that she doesn't speak English, so the tale is translated to him through her daughter Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung).

Mr. Heep gets clues about what he has to do to help Story. It seems that she is here at this little complex to meet someone, and then . . . well, that would be telling. The problem is that there's another fae creature there that is determined to keep Story from doing what it is she is supposed to do. So Mr. Heep has to defend Story, and figure out which members of the little community are also there to help her in some way.

And that is all I feel safe about telling you about the plot without entering heavy spoiler territory, and I still feel like I may have said too much.

There are parts of Lady in the Water that are amazingly good. The movie is well shot, well acted (see Item Three on the checklist), and very moody (Item One.) The parts of the film where Shyamalan plays it subtle are great. The basic concept of what he's trying to do and say is cool. But when he pulls out the Metaphor Mallet and whacks you right in the forehead, it knocks you right out of the movie. And it's a pretty even balance between the two. It's half amazing, and half "Ow! Stop it!"

If he had stuck with subtle, instead of whipping out an axe to grind, I would have given the Lady in the Water an easy eight out of ten. It helps that the movie doesn't have two of his trademark maneuvers: there is no "shocking plot twist" (Item Five) at the end, which means there's no "you should have seen this coming" montage.

The movie's worst offense, however, isn't his metaphor mallet, it's is use of Item Six on the checklist. Instead of a cameo, Shyamalan gave himself a fairly major part in the movie, with a character that pretty much screams "It's me!" He really should be above this "Mary Sue" kind of thing.

Lady in the Water is a very frustrating film. There really are moments where Shyamalan really lives up to his hype, and the movie is amazingly good. Then there are parts where it's bad and lives down to what his worst detractors say about him. If he had shown some restraint, and not let his ire at critics get the better of him, I think the movie would be a classic.

Shyamalan has some very good things to say about stories, how they're written, what we expect from them, and the effect they can have on the world. Unfortunately, the bad parts of the movie drag what could have been a great flick straight to the bottom.

RevSF movie guy Gary Mitchel knows from being whacked in the forehead.

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