Saturday, July 22, 2006

In Theaters: Lady in the Water

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I'm gonna be the only one who likes this movie again, aren't I?

I mean, I'm used to it. THE AVENGERS, EXORCIST II, GODZILLA, it's my lot in life. But it's not like I seek these things out. Wasn't even that intent on seeing this one, but I had a date at the movies and we were both vaguely interested, so there you go.

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that LADY IN THE WATER will be my "most underrated" pick for 2006. The critics despise it, and it doesn't look like a crowd-pleaser either. It's such an odd film, the kind of thing that only a filmmaker with total carte blanche is allowed to make, and that's not a criticism. It's sui generis, a fantasy film unlike any I can name. Like many of Shyamalan's films, it resembles an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode. That's not a criticism either.

The story, you may have gleaned from the trailers. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the super at a Philadelphia apartment building with a variety of vaguely unusual tenants. Someone's been in the pool at night, which you're not supposed to do, and one night, Cleveland, on the watch, slips and falls and almost drowns, before being rescued by the mysterious intruder. Her name is Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), and she is a 'narf' (a kind of nymph) from 'the Blue World'. She, like others of her kind, has been sent out to find someone to communicate with- she knows the person is a writer, and that he or she's in the building. To send her home, Cleveland has to find the writer, and protect her from the 'scrant'- a wolf-like plant creature hiding in the underbrush, who is out to kill Story, and possibly anyone in her way.

It gets complicated. There are people with powers who can help protect Story and perform the ritual that makes her return possible, but they're normal tenants and don't realize their significance. Cleveland doesn't find this out from Story herself, but from Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), a Korean college student who lives with her mother, who knows the bedtime story that explains everything, and communicates through her daughter most of the time. The writer may just be Vick Ran (played by Shyamalan himself), who's been struggling for months to finish "The Cookbook", a compendium of sociopolitical observations. Ran's book will apparently be very important in the future, and Story, like the ancient muses, must make sure his work is completed.

The most disconcerting thing about the film is the way it's shot. Almost all the film's visuals are tight shots, with characters speaking OOS and importing early exposition almost in passing. There isn't an easy, comfortable set-up- the film plunges straight into the myth. As becomes plainly obvious midway through, this is a film about stories and mythmaking and the truth behind legends (much like Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE, but on a smaller scale.) The drawback is that this almost requires the characters to speak in very open and not terribly naturalistic ways about the concepts being explored. The acting sometimes veers OTT. There's a lot of humor, and just plain weirdness.

And then there's the critic. Bob Balaban plays Harry Farber, a somewhat pompous film writer who moves into the apartment at the beginning, offers some advice as to mythic structure based on his knowledge of film, and... well, suffice to say, actual critics have harped on this portrayal somewhat out of proportion to the actual screen time the character takes up. I'm not going to say that this influenced their overall assessments, but the fact that I feel compelled to give this minor supporting character a whole paragraph shows how I think just a little bit of objectivity has been lost. Obviously, film criticism can never be truly and purely objective, but honestly, if the character were a book critic, would we even hear about him? (This is no slight on Balaban, who can do no wrong.)

The myth itself, well, it's fascinating. Some may find it silly, but it has connections to stories of muses and nymphs and angels, and is just elaborate enough to be surprising. There's no single big twist in this movie, but there quite a few inversions of expectation. The introduction of the various fantasy elements into a mundane setting is beautifully done, and though this is not a horror film, there are scares aplenty.

The film boasts one of the most diverse casts I've seen in a Hollywood film this year. Not just racially, but in terms of appearance and body type and style. Cleveland has a stutter and a bit of a tic. There's a guy who is meticulously exercising one half of his body, just to see how lopsided he can become.

This is just a very strange little movie in a number of ways, and I guess readers should know that when I say "strange", I more or less mean "good". I feel glad that a movie like this was greenlighted, filmed, and released with only one studio rejecting it. Granted, it's similar to the good feeling I got when I saw XANADU and realized there was a period in film history when ANYTHING could be bankrolled, but that's just my attitude.

Anyway, LADY IN THE WATER is a very good film, one that doesn't do everything it sets out to do, but accomplishes quite a bit nonetheless. It's been called pretentious, and will be called that many times further. Perhaps it is, but that's the only way this story could be told. I consider that a fair sacrifice.

Grade: B+

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