Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Lay "Lady" lay

I often worry that I may like too many movies. That perhaps I should actively attempt being more critical and nitpicky. But I can’t help it. I don’t try to cut movies slack, I just genuinely like a lot of what I see. Movies this summer that I’ve been criticized for recommending include “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “The Break-Up,” “Nacho Libre,” “Click” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” I completely understand why each of these movies may not be the cup of tea of some/many, but I stand by my reviews (and take comfort in the fact that I’ve disliked many of this summer’s big movies such as “Poseidon,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Cars” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”).

But when it comes to M. Night Shymalan’s latest, “Lady in the Water,” this becomes especially troubling. “Lady” has received advance thrashing unlike anything else this year. Virtually all reviews I’ve read thus far has destroyed the movie, calling it a disaster of epic proportions and saying Shymalan’s ego got the better of him (Variety chose “ponderous” and “self-indulgent”). So naturally, upon entering the theater, I feared the worst.

I saw the movie tonight at Muvico Egyptian 24 in Maryland, and had to drive home to New York immediately after the screening. I spent the entire four hours of the drive second-guessing the fact that I liked “Lady.”

What could I do? The movie worked for me. I tried to think of anything I could to not embarrass myself and proclaim like and admiration for a movie that will undoubtedly continue to be bashed. But I could only think of one aspect I truly disliked (more on that later) and it wasn’t enough to tip my analysis into the ‘overtly negative’ realm.

“Lady” follows sad, lonely building superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) after he rescues a mysterious young woman, Story (Bryce Dallas Howard)—actually a “narf” or sea nymph—who has arrived with a purpose, but longs to return to her “blue world.” Cleveland, along with help from his fellow tenants, is forced to work to help Story in any way he can, and protect her from “scrunts,” evil creatures who are trying to prevent her from returning home.

Early trailers, notably the one attached to “Harry Potter,” and posters pegged the film as “A Bedtime Story.” However, in the last few months, the studio—observing little to no traction—has shifted their marketing campaign to sell it as a typical Shymalan scary movie. Most of these materials emphasize the “scrunts,” the dog/wolflike creatures with fur like matted grass.

If the studio wanted to go with truth in advertising (though when do they?), they would’ve stuck with the “Bedtime Story” angle. That’s really what this thing is. While the “scrunts” are frightening in their minimal screentime, “Lady” really plays like a strange, creative fairy tale for the most part. This is an extremely light PG-13, and most definitely a “fantasy,” not a “thriller” or “horror.”

This isn’t a knock: kids are more likely to be frightened by “Monster House” than “Lady in the Water.”

I think a main reason early reaction has been poor is due to the movie’s incessant strangeness/ridiculousness and out-there story elements; this is easily the filmmaker’s weirdest movie. What makes “Lady in the Water” different from his other films is that this doesn’t play with fictional creatures whose realities we’re familiar with, such as ghosts, aliens and superheroes. Here, he invents his own and people might not be able to accept that. I could, and I dug what he was doing for the most part.

With “Lady,” Shymalan has created his own mythology and creature names—like “narf” and “scrunts”—and some audiences may find this to be a bit too weird for them. You need to make a decision early on if you’re going to go with the movie’s self-invented mythology (including some malarkey about a giant bird) and buy into it or not. Those who don’t will be put off from the get go and I would imagine many understandably aren’t so willing. I was willing to give Nighty Night the benefit of the doubt and just went with it.

This isn’t a movie to be taken too seriously—there’s a suspension of disbelief necessary, such as a scene midway through where Cleveland goes for a swim and is underwater for an unfathomably long amount of time. Perhaps it’ll be mostly young’n who completely buy into the story and let themselves enjoy it, but I wish more filmmakers had the strength of their own convictions and make movies a little “off” from the mainstream.

I’m really not sure how audiences are going to respond to this. I doubt reaction will be very positive—it’s probably far too strange and bereft of scares—but I don’t think “Lady” will be widely loathed like “The Village” was.

Well, not by audiences at least. A major critic, from one of the top publications in the mid-Atlantic, who sat next to me commented after the movie, “Maybe ‘Little Man’ wasn’t so bad,” so I’m guessing the critical drubbing will continue. It’s almost as if people/critics have been waiting for the supremely arrogant Shymalan to slip up, and this is their chance. To be fair, it is a fairly easy target, as it’s by far the auteur’s most self-indulgent film.

Speaking of critics, there is the much-discussed character of Mr. Farber, a recent resident of The Cove. Farber is a film critic, and Shymalan uses him as a device to get “revenge” at the critics who gave him (deservedly) negative notices for “The Village,” causing him an apparently bruised ego. Shymalan’s need for this character, a know-it-all, arrogant asshole, proves the depths of his immaturity, ego and bitterness. That said, the character is pretty funny, but it’s unsure if most critics will appreciate the joke or not.

It’s almost redundant to praise a Giamatti performance, but as Cleveland, he really is terrific. He gives an understated, nuanced and actually very moving performance here, and takes what was on the page and turns it into something special. He even pulls off Cleveland’s stutter believably, not the easiest thing to do. Were this not in a movie about narfs and scrunts, it would merit Oscar consideration.

Howard does a fine job as the titular character, but she’s actually not in the film terribly much. This is Cleveland’s story, and there are long stretches when he leaves her and the movie stays with him. Story spends much of the movie nakedly crouched in a shower, is mostly quiet, soft-spoken and prone to vacant staring. Nonetheless, Howard does what’s required of her, if not making as strong an impression here as she did in “The Village.”

“Lady in the Water” follows “The Break-Up” rule of casting its supporting characters with almost incomprehensibly strong actors. The various residents of the Cove are played by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright, Tony winner Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, Jared Harris and Freddy Rodriguez (“Six Feet Under’s” Federico) as one of the strangest characters you’re likely to see in a film. None of them are given enough screentime, but each make strong impressions and do more with them than many actors could have.

A major early criticism has been that all the Cove residents believe Cleveland’s far-fetched tale immediately without questioning it, but I found it charming and thought it in the spirit of the rest of the movie. It’s all the tenants ability to work together and find their own purpose in Story’s to the blue world that makes parts of the movie more endearing than they probably should be.

However, there is one Cove resident who completely rubbed me the wrong way—the aforementioned thing I hated: the resident played by Shymalan himself. If you recall, Shymalan cast himself in each of his earlier movies in small roles, but here he’s given much more screentime. The problem lies not only in that Shymalan is slightly less skilled at acting than Quentin Tarantino; it’s that he’s cast himself as a writer who figures prominently in the story and is ultimately destined to change the world. This story element seems to justify rumors of Shymalan’s wildly inflated ego and his consistent buying into his own hype. Thankfully the film’s creative, interesting elements and other performances helped me forgive this misstep.

As you can probably tell, “Lady in the Water” is far from a perfect movie. It occasionally suffers from long-windedness and over-indulgence. However, for the most part, I appreciated what Shymalan was doing here. I found the originality of the film refreshing and was happy to see the filmmaker step away (for the most part) from his former restrictions of “scary movies” and twist endings. He just needs to be careful about how highly he thinks of himself before he truly jumps the shark.


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