Somehow, in what would only be conceived in some alternate universe, M. Night Shyamalan was given several million dollars by Warner Brothers to make a movie for his kids. Not a kids movie, mind you – a movie specifically tailored and constructed for M. Night Shyamalan and his actual children.
This took cojones. From all involved. Shyamalan had some real huevos rancheros when he suggested this – when he actually pitched the screenplay to Disney. (The buildup, event and aftermath of all this were covered in Michael Baumberger’s fascinating piece of sycophantic literature… a must read, in my opinion) Disney, in turn, did the sensible thing: “No, dude. We can’t give you millions and millions of dollars to make a bizarre, eerie movie that only you and your kids are going to truly get. We can’t slap the Disney brand name on what is essentially a big budget, feature-length version of one of those horrendous video clips you stick on the Special Features section of your DVDs.”
Then, Warner Brothers also showed some remarkable testicular girth in greenlighting something that they had no idea whatsoever about. “Well… It’s Shyamalan! I didn’t understand a word of that shit, but everything the man touches turns to GOLD! We’re guaranteed a 50 million opening and the thing could coast to three times that at least. This fucker’s a Go! And that fat bald guy from Sideways might turn out to be the next fat gay guy from Boogie Nights. It’s gonna work.”
And so, the severe punishment doled on the man for his creation was both inevitable and natural. As Liam Neeson so conveniently described the third act of Batman Begins.
HOWEVER - I thought there was some charm to be had in Lady in the Water. The performances are good. Even from Shyamalan himself. Yes, it’s a bit strange that he cast himself in that Jesus role… But, remove the fact that it’s Shyamalan from the equation and it is not a bad performance. He pulls the character off. Giamatti is asked to carry what is ostensibly a “summer popcorn movie” and he pulls it off. Bryce Dallas Howard is a looker, and she has a magnetic screen presence. Bob Balaban is given some effective funny lines…
The movie also has some interesting ideas. And if Shyamalan hadn’t relied so much on awkward exposition devices to communicate them, it probably would have worked better. Why all those rules? Why have some Korean lady explain them to the main character using her annoying daughter as a subtitle machine?
This could have been like Unbreakable. A group of realistic characters experiencing a fantasy on completely realistic terms. Gradually discovering by the end of it, that they had participated in a classic fairy tale. This could have been accomplished by dialing down on the exposition and allowing the protagonist to slowly uncover what was happening. And slowly coming to accept it. If exposition was necessary, then leave it to the only character who should know what’s going on – the lady in the water herself.
Because it was an original idea, I applaud Shyamalan’s ambition in trying to pull it off. And because I had never seen anything quite like it, I was swept away just the same. I “got” it. I saw his meditation on the magic of storytelling, and the power that stories can have to change the world. The message got to me, as ham-fisted as it was.
But, yeah, it’s his worst movie.
Still better than many other “worst” movies, I can tell you that.
I’m sure his daughters watch it constantly though. Good for them.