Cleveland Heep (Giamatti) is the shy and secretive building super of apartment complex The Cove. When a mysterious sea nymph called Story (Howard) shows up in the apartment pool, Cleveland finds himself at the centre of a bedtime story come dangerously to
“I Don’t get it.” With this blunt dismissal, one of the most profitable artist-studio relationships of modern times began to unravel. As detailed in The Man Who Heard Voices, Michael Bamberger’s insider account of the making of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady In The Water, Disney president Nina Jacobson was on the phone to her boss, Disney chairman Dick Cook. Jacobson, who had worked with Shyamalan since The Sixth Sense, had just finished reading the sixth draft of the writer-director’s skewed fairy tale, based on a bedtime story he made up for his kids.
“I don’t get it,” she told Cook.
“Neither do I,” came the reply.
So, 18 months on and courtesy of Shyamalan’s new patron, Warner Bros., Lady In The Water is suited and booted for its date in the court of public opinion. The finished film is as poised and spiffy-looking as we have come to expect from a master craftsman, but the central question still hangs overhead — will anyone get it?
Lady is certainly a slippery customer. There is no trademark twist to pull the rug out from under your feet this time, but the curveballs start shooting past pre-credits, when a cave-drawing animation outlines a mythology as childish as it is complex. As the fable spills out into an unassuming apartment complex in the form of Howard’s sea-nymph Story, the clash of fairy tale and everyday results in a jumble of competing elements: a family film flecked with horror, a comic fantasy weighed down with worldly concerns, E. T. with Paul Giamatti playing Elliott as a middle-aged, grief-stricken building super with a stutter. Small wonder Disney baulked.
The unsettling effect is so startling it can only be deliberate. The mathematical storytelling that characterised The Sixth Sense and Signs is replaced by a freewheeling, ”Hmm, where was I?” quality that reminds you of nothing so much as a story made up on the spot — which of course, it was. Even the surface sheen of Shyamalan’s controlling hand is given an electric jolt by the presence of Chris Doyle behind the camera, the maverick Australian shooting apartment complex The Cove as a self-contained world with a geography as varied and exotic as Middle-earth.
Lady In The Water behaves very oddly — to ‘get it’ you really have to go with it. Giamatti’s grounded charm just about gets you past those silly fairy-tale names. The generous ensemble cast almost makes you forget that none of the characters ask any of the questions you would expect them to. As director, Shyamalan works wonders with the reams of exposition with which Shyamalan the writer has saddled him. And yet, for all the TLC that has been poured into the project since that infamous sixth draft, the fact remains that most people, Disney people, still will not get it.
Pre-publication publicity for Bamberger’s book would have you believe the battle lines are neatly drawn: the misunderstood artist versus the studio sell-out. And yet what is intriguing about this clash is how many commentators have lined up with Jacobson. Shyamalan, Hollywood’s only blockbuster auteur, is apparently difficult to love. The irony is that Jacobson perhaps knew this better than anyone, and if her former favourite could ever bring himself to read her script notes he may have found a few words of wisdom. Is it smart to cast a know-all, killjoy film critic (Bob Balaban) as the villain of the piece? Perhaps not. Given previous notices on Shyamalan’s acting cameos, was it foolish to place dibs on the second male lead, a struggling writer destined to one day get the recognition he deserves? You betcha.But Shyamalan would not be told. The man clearly loves a scrap.
Shyamalan alone probably doesn’t mind that Lady In The Water comes pre-loaded with ammunition to fire back at him, but while Team Jacobson will break out the bunting when the critics inevitably circle, there is a real danger that a distinctive work from one of our most original storytellers will be remembered solely as the “Disney divorce movie”. Lady deserves better. She may not be entirely convincing — indeed, she makes some bad choices — but Lady is also inspired at times, a genuinely affecting and oddly hopeful paean to the power of stories in a world gone to hell. Shyamalan will be visited by better stories, he will make more popular films, but this adult fairy tale is likely to remain his most personal movie.
If you have found Shyamalan guilty of indulgence or self-promotion in the past, then youd best move along, because theres nothing to see here. If, however, you place a premium on original vision and creative risk, then there is much pleasure to be had w