Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Movie: Lady in the Water (2006)

Trying to keep the movie and the book about the movie separate is a fool’s errand. They’ve become fused, a single multimedia art project.

And in strange ways. Michael Bamberger’s book contributed mightily to the film’s poisonous buzz. But only those who have read it will be willing to give M. Night Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt. Or figure out what’s going on.

According to Bamberger, MNS places great stock in the subtext of his films. As far as I can tell, that boils down to: everything happens for a reason. As I believe the exact opposite, I may not be in his target demographic. Call it a philosophical difference.

Belief is what Lady in the Water is all about. It’s Shyamalan creating an entire original mythology as a way of decrying the lack of magic in modern life.

Lady’s opening minutes hint at what MNS is after. A plainspoken narration laying out his world, accompanied by simple animation. A mundane environment charged with possibility, thanks in large part to cinematography by Hong Kong wild man Christopher Doyle.

Then MNS introduces his mythology, which seems both half-baked and overdeveloped. At times Lady plays like a quasi-remake of the Albert Brooks misfire The Muse. Both deal with writers inspired by otherworldly women. And both feature characters who either disregard or misinterpret the rules governing those other worlds. Which makes for lousy drama. Why should I care if a made-up character flouts made-up regulations that I don’t know? A movie about belief shouldn’t be based on an act of bad faith.

The top-flight cast keeps the movie watchable. Paul Giamatti is everything you’d want in a hero. The supporting players don’t have much to do, but as they’re the likes of Bill Irwin, Jeffrey Wright and Tovah Feldshuh, you don’t mind so much.

As for MNS’s acting – he has a sizeable role as the writer whose work will eventually transform the world – when the guy writing your hagiography makes repeated references to your “bug’s-life eyes” and “nasal voice,” it may be time to stay behind the camera.

(Aside: My favorite section of Bamberger’s book recounts a scene between Giamatti and actor/comedian Jim Gaffigan. The scene is in the movie, but Gaffigan’s role was recast. I want answers.)

I didn’t believe in the world Shyamalan created. But after reading about his struggle to bring it to life, I was willing to believe in the possibility of it. This time around, that’ll have to be enough.