Original US release date: July 21, 2006
Production budget: $70,000,000
Worldwide gross: $72,785,169
M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water was one cog in the wheel of Shyamalan’s original fall from grace – not because of him or anything he did or said in his personal life, but simply because audiences and critics alike agreed that he had lost a step creatively, both as a writer and as a director. After three very successful and well-received outings in the form of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, Shyamalan’s films began to see diminishing returns and fan backlash.
Beginning with The Village (which I featured in a previous #ThrowbackThursday column here), audiences decided they had had enough and rejected anything he put out, whether it was deserved or not. (You can click the link to see if I agreed with the majority regarding The Village.) But did he deserve it for Lady in the Water, his follow-up to that film? Or should it have been a success, rather than the financial flop that it ultimately became?
Marketed as “a bedtime story”, Lady in the Water was somewhat of a departure from Shyamalan’s typical fare. While supernatural in its essence, the narrative largely (though not completely) breaks away from Shyamalan’s action-horror storytelling approach and adapts a softer, more lowkey tone and atmosphere. When a mythological sea nymph (narf) by the name of Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) mysteriously appears in the swimming pool of general manager Cleveland Heep’s (Paul Giamatti) apartment complex’s swimming pool, he must determine what to do with her, why she has arrived, and even what to believe about her origins and very nature.
Many have criticized Shyamalan’s story for any of a various number of reasons, but they have almost always done so with the full knowledge that they, themselves, could never have come up with something so intricate and imaginative if they’d been given ten million dollars and thirty years to do so. Whether one actively enjoys the story or not, it’s absurd to suggest that it’s fundamentally flawed in its nature. There is a lot going on, both on the surface and underneath, and as is typical with a Shyamalan tale, there is plenty to discover upon subsequent viewings. He leaves his breadcrumbs as his trail – his trademark style back in his early days – and it’s up to the audience to follow them or not.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan also injects a lot of needless silliness into the proceedings, perhaps in an effort to theoretically add some extra entertainment value to his sleepy little story (it is supposed to be told at bedtime, after all). Heep’s tenants are almost all zany nutballs to the point that Shyamalan really goes overboard with it. Even in the most unrealistic fantasy, science-fiction, and horror movies, if a filmmaker wants the audience to relate and become invested in the journey, the characters need to be believable in the ways that they behave and speak. Yes, there are some weird people out in the world. I can see one or two of them taking up residence in Heep’s complex. But having this many at once just plays as inauthentic and removes the viewer from the story with one eyeball-roll-inducing moment after the next. Shyamalan also gets distracted by shoehorning in some attack at movie critics, who were not his real problem. Maybe it made him feel better to attack people who were just honestly doing their job, but it does nothing to narrow the narrative focus of the film.
Perhaps even worse than that is Giamatti’s performance as Heep. Not every aspect of his turn is awful, but Heep stutters and Giamatti’s attempts to do so are a huge distraction and overshadow all other components of his work. I have known several people who stutter. That is not what stutterers sound like. It’s not even close. Giamatti is over-the-top and cartoony in a way that isn’t funny (and should it be funny, anyway?) and isn’t entertaining. It’s just annoying and frustrating because it’s just so hard to believe that the typically-reliable Giamatti isn’t capable of better than this. The performance very well could have been Shyamalan’s fault. Perhaps Giamatti knew very well how an authentic stutter should sound, but Shyamalan requested he do something more notable. No matter whose fault it was, it was an awful choice for so many reasons.
Bryce Dallas Howard, on the other hand, does what she can to inject some grace and elegance into the film through her portrayal of Story. She can only do so much on her own and, in actuality, not much is required of her compared to that of which she is capable, but she’s still far and away the best part of the film and has nothing to be ashamed of, here. The other tenants (mostly lesser-known actors, but most notably Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, and Bill Irwin) do what’s asked of them without fault but don’t carry enough weight to overcome the deficiencies in their characters’ presentations.
While far from his worst film, Lady in the Water is, in my opinion, where Shyamalan truly started to lose his touch. The idea for the film isn’t bad (there are no bad ideas) and the story had potential, but the execution lost its focus in an effort to try (and fail) to be funny and kooky instead of finding ways to make the narrative more eventful and engaging. Bryce Dallas Howard fans have at least something to cling to, here. But nobody else really does. I always got the sense that Shyamalan felt pressured to deliver on a regular basis after his initial burst of incredible success, so he started trying to put content out too quickly without taking the necessary time to ensure that the work was appealing and entertaining. He worried too much about his reputation and not enough about his output. Things have seemingly turned around in recent years with The Visit and last year’s Split. But in 2006, Shyamalan was still maturing both as a writer and a director and the growing pains were quite evident here.
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