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Lady in the Water
Review written by: Alex Sandell

Telling audiences exactly what to expect when going into an M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village) movie is never a good idea.  In the case of the director's most recent film, Lady in the Water, telling them what not to expect could be the difference between a viewer enjoying what they see or walking out of the theater with a scowl and a shit-list with Shyamalan's name newly etched in right at the top.

Lady in the Water is not a horror movie.  It's hardly even a thriller.  M. Night has crafted a comic fairy tale for a family audience.  The MPAA claims the film earned a PG-13 rating due to "some frightening sequences."  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys had some frightening sequences, and is still somehow considered suitable for the whole family -- even those members under the age of 13.  At Christmas time, no less.

Shyamalan's story is meant to be viewed by children.  It is also clearly a G or PG rated movie, despite the MPAA's claim to the contrary.  No "sequence" was frightening enough to warrant that "13" rating.  It's a simple tale that kids will get a kick out of and parents should enjoy for the jovial sense of humor and occasional suspense.  If you analyze Lady in the Water to death, you're going to hate it.  It will leave you with more questions than it will answers. 

The movie is based on a bedtime story M. Night told to his children.  A story with a beautiful lady that briefly lives in a cavern under a swimming pool, before revealing herself to the one person who can set the world back on track.  A story with a scary monster hiding in the grass and three even scarier monsters hiding in the trees.  The tree monsters can attack and kill the grass monster if the grass monster disobeys the "laws." 

What are the laws?  Who created these laws?  What is the background of the monster in the grass or those in the trees?  Why doesn't the grass monster like the lady in the water and what are the tree monsters doing hanging around and spying on the grass monster?  Why can Paul Giamatti hold his breath underwater for a length of time that would make Aquaman green with envy?  If you're looking for the answers, you're watching the wrong movie. 

When I was a child my grandfather used to tell me a story about a man whose hair could never stop growing and it grew so long that it wrapped all the way around the earth and stopped the planet from rotating.  Then everyone on the earth fell off and landed on the moon where they built colonies and lived off of an endless supply of cheese. 

I was 3 or 4 years old and I never asked my grandpa why somebody didn't just cut the guy's hair.  I never wondered what would happen when the humans ate all the cheese and suddenly had no moon to live on.  I wasn't concerned about their inevitably high cholesterol levels from eating all the cheese, and hadn't a single worry over the fate of the lactose intolerant.  I didn't care how they managed to get to the moon without exploding, imploding or running out of air.  I just accepted it and listened intently to the story until my grandfather finally dozed off during the telling of it. 

All children know where the wild things are, but how many asked why they were there?  How many cared?  Did you really interrupt your mother and father to ask for the origin of the wild things?  What about Rudolph?  Why did his nose glow?  Why did Charlie Brown keep running after that football?  How could Snoopy fly airplanes?  What did Scrooge McDuck do for a living?  Those aren't the things that keep children up at night.  It's adults that need everything explained to them.

It takes that special kind of adult known as a film critic to pick apart a film, find the curtain, expose the wires and then complain when they can't find any real magic.  To my surprise, Shyamalan goes out of his way to poke fun at this form of adult.  He shows them to be petty, egocentric individuals above pretty much anything but the most sophisticated forms of entertainment.  Not surprisingly, they're already tearing the movie to shreds.

That said, it is my job to critique films and Lady in the Water is far from perfect.  M. Night -- for the first time since he made his name with The Sixth Sense -- seems unsure of himself as a filmmaker.  He's more afraid of his material than his audience will be.  In a lot of ways he seems to be parodying his earlier work.  But, with exception made for one hilarious scene with the uppity film critic character (played by Bob Balaban), he never dares go all the way over the top.  At the same time, he doesn't attempt to reign it all in and create a serious movie with an actual message.

So much is hinted at but then never fully explored.  It also suffers from -- and I hate to say this after Shyamalan's take on critics -- a strong sense of predictability.  But what does work works wonderfully.  The humor in the movie had the preview audience I attended the film with laughing throughout.  The story is intriguing, even if it is a little hollow.  James Newton Howard creates a beautiful score for the film and the cast aims to please and mainly succeeds.

The biggest disappointment with the movie is the part Shyamalan gave to Bryce Dallas Howard.  In The Village Howard proved what a wonderful actress she could be.  She was pretty much the only thing about the movie that made it tolerable.  While she is the title character in Lady in the Water, her character is fairly boring and is never allowed to do much more than sit in a shower and shiver like Daryl Hannah in Splash.  Howard does as well as anybody would at talking in whispers while pulling on her ear to answer questions asked of her -- I just wish more was done with the character. 

That's both the blessing and the curse of Lady in the Water:  More should have been done with it.  While it definitely works on an entertainment level, people will be expecting more than a good laugh out of an M. Night Shyamalan picture.  The critic in me wants to boo and hiss and cry in disappointment.  The 5-year-old in me wants to stand up and applaud.  The moviegoer in me wants to say that it's worth the price of a matinee and leave it at that. 

And that's just what I'm going to do.

There's nothing this movie critic likes more than discussing movies with fellow film fanatics. He's even getting better at replying. Agree? Disagree? Doesn't matter. Let's talk film! Email Alex!

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6

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