I approach M Night Shymalan’s films with a modified version of the auteur theory – I don’t think that he’s a great director, but he’s an idiosyncratic one, and as a result every movie he makes, no matter how bad, is interesting to examine. And he’s made some bad ones. I would rank Unbreakable among the worst modern films I have seen in theaters, but only because I didn’t see The Village in theaters. What infuriates me about Unbreakable – an unearned and pointlessly dour atmosphere – almost sinks Lady in the Water in its first half. But like a Northwestern pilot coming out of his drunken stupor in the nick of time to bring his plane out of a death dive, M Night saves his film by realizing that when you’re making a movie based on a bedtime story some whimsy goes a long way.
The set up has Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep (a name, Nick Nunziata claims, that would be better suited to his 11 Colonels Attack, which has characters with names like Grady Meats and Dr. Mario Food), a building superintendent who interacts with the lives of many strange tenants as he does his daily work. One day he discovers a girl living in the building’s pool – it turns out that she’s a narf, a character from a bedtime story (a Korean bedtime story, it seems, and I have a hard time picturing “narf” as a Korean invention). She’s in our world to perform a vital mission, and then she has to escape back to her own world before the agents of evil, including a wolf made out tinder, kills her.
Lady in the Water started its life as a bedtime story Night told his children, and considering the fact that Heap’s big personal secret is that someone broke into his house once and butchered his family, you have to wonder how those kids are going to turn out. “And then the daddy couldn’t do anything to save his little children, who were chopped to pieces. Good night, kids!” This is all part of the overly dour first half, where Heap takes the narf – a redheaded and almost see-through Bryce Dallas Howard – into his home where she spends most of her time clad only in his shirt or taking showers. I mean, how sad can you be when this is your living situation?
Things perk up when Heap realizes that the narf is there to give inspiration to one of his tenants. Now on a mission, he tries to figure out who she’s there to see, and to find out more about narfs from his Korean tenants, who are portrayed in such a grotesquely stereotypical manner that I am surprised they don’t eat dogs.
By the way, the Koreans have a lot of info on narfs. So much info that I began to realize that this wasn’t a bedtime story – it was a D&D Monster Manual. The Koreans give Heep information just shy of what a narf’s THAC0 is, and what kind of a saving throw bonus she gets against paralysis.
If Night had just made it about this, I would be giving a much less positive review. But what he does that’s interesting is that he takes the concept of the bedtime story and makes the characters slowly begin to realize that they’re in one. From the Korean Monster Manual Heep learns that the narf is aided by people with special powers, so he hunts down people in the building who might fit those character types. It’s a nice bit of meta-fiction, and I tend to really like meta-fiction. Plus at this point Night is having fun; earlier in the film we were introduced to Freddy Rodriguez as a guy who only works out half his body, making him freakish looking. In the first half of the movie, when the mood is dark and everything very realistic, this character is distractingly bizarre, but when the fairytale elements come to the fore he makes more sense.
Here there be spoilers, but I can’t help discussing this next bit, which is my favorite stuff in the movie. It turns out that the tenant who needs the narf’s inspiration is none other than M Night himself. He’s writing a political book, and the narf’s appearance sparks his creativity. We learn that his fate is grim – he will publish the book and be murdered because of his radical political thoughts. But there’s a positive side – one day a young man will grow up reading that book, become president and bring the world to peace based on the book’s principals. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, M Night has cast himself as the Indian Jesus. It’s an amazing act of ego, and it delighted me to no end. It’s Night’s biggest role in any of his films – I would say he would be third billed. The guy’s good looking and has some decent charisma, but his delivery is flat – next time, keep yourself out of your picture, buddy.
If that was the only flight of ego, Lady in the Water would be interesting. What makes it brilliant is the inclusion of Bob Balaban as a film critic who is new to the building. Heap comes to him for help in figuring out the dramatic structure of stories like the one they have found themselves in, but it turns out the critic can no longer find any joy in simple stories. He’s far too analytical and cold and jaded. Later on he’s the only character who dies, getting ripped apart by the tinder wolf. It’s delightful, because it’s the least subtle swipe at critics since Kevin Smith bizarrely ended Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back with the duo beating the shit out of TalkBackers. I don’t know if Night thought that the whole critic thing would be a neat metaphor, but it comes across more like an angry trenchcoat wearing high school student drawing pictures of his hated teacher getting disemboweled.
As much as these flagrant displays of unchecked egomania seem like madness and the kind of thing that would stop the movie cold, I loved them because they fit into the meta-fictional aspect of it all. The story is about the story, but also the teller, and there’s M Night hanging it all out there while making a loony martyr pose.
Maybe it would have been too much if Night hadn’t assembled a fine group of actors. Giamatti is saddled with a stutter that he can’t seem to always remember he has, but otherwise no one can capture that working class sadness like he can. And no one is more fun to see come alive – Giamatti thaws throughout the film and it’s a wonder to watch. Bryce Dallas Howard has a big role, but without a lot to do. She does look convincingly alien, though.
The biggest surprise to me was Bill Irwin, the professional clown, who scared the shit out of me in this film as an intense and strange guy who watches the war on CNN all the time. Jeffrey Wright is also great as a crossword expert who doubts his place in the story – actually, almost everyone is great.
And when the movie gets humming it’s delightful. Not just for the meta stuff, but on a simpler level as well. Once the doldrums are passed Night has a good grip on the dreamlike flow of a good bedtime story, and he doesn’t spend too much time on the always boring aspect of people coming to believe in narfs and other beasties prowling their apartment complex. A good bedtime story is all about the “and then” factor, and Night propels the story along in that way.
Also delightfully, Lady in the Water has no twist, and it has one of the best endings I have seen in a while, just in terms of the story stopping at the exact perfect point. In this world of multiple epilogues I can imagine a cut where the movie stretches on for reels after the climax, but Night doesn’t make that mistake. The film hits the high point and the credits roll.
What’s interesting is that the movie is being sold as a horror film. While there are scary elements – the wolf can be frightening – the film is mostly charming (at least when it stops being depressed up front) and often funny. Mostly Lady in the Water is lovely, not spooky.
There’s no denying that M Night is a talented filmmaker with a fantastic eye for what looks good on the screen. What makes Lady in the Water his best film since The Sixth Sense is that Night sheds much of the self-seriousness that bogged down Signs and Unbreakable, and it has none of the foolishness that ruined The Village. In fact, I wonder if some of the ego-maniacal stuff in this movie isn’t just Night taking the piss out of the audience. I mean, I doubt it, but it’s something to think about.