Lady in the Water ★★★

2017 movie viewings, #110. A couple of weeks ago I watched and enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, Split (see my review here), which among other things got me talking about when exactly this once A-list Hollywood director lost his cache with audiences, which some people claim started with the "not really a surprise ending" The Village (which I liked more than others), but that everyone agrees reached its apex with 2006's Lady in the Water, the $100 million disaster that violently turned audiences against him, giving him a chance to make only one more big-budget movie (2008's The Happening, which only got produced because it was greenlit before Lady in the Water was released), before sinking so far so quickly within the studio system that the next four movies he made didn't even have his name mentioned in the commercials or other promotional material.

But is it fair to heap this much scorn on Lady in the Water? This is the question I kept asking myself after watching Split; after all, like many others, I didn't actually watch Lady in the Water when it first came out, smugly satisfied instead by the public bonfire others had built around it. And if we're going to be honest, people built that bonfire not just because of the actual movies but equally because Shyamalan's ego and arrogance had reached such an intolerable point by the mid-aughts (but for more, see the comments section of my Split review, where I go into detail about the cartoonishly self-serving 2004 documentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, in which not only is it posited that the filmmaker personally experienced all the supernatural things that he had made movies out of at that point in his life, but where it was later revealed by the Associated Press that Shyamalan had secretly produced and financed the documentary himself, and had forced everyone involved to sign non-disclosure agreements that would've fined them 5 million dollars for revealing that fact). And that's why, the day after I wrote my Split review, I decided to download and watch Lady in the Water, to see for myself whether all of us have unfairly derided the movie this entire time, whether in fact it's a sneaky classic that was a victim of Shyamalan's hubris as a simple human being back in those years.

And the verdict? Well, um, eeeeehhhhhhhhhhh. I mean, certainly it's better than the "unwatchable" reputation it has among certain circles, but only if you go into it with the right attitude; deliberately meant to be a child-friendly modern fairytale, it's actually not that bad if you accept it as such, a clever attempt to take an ancient-feeling folktale and to graft it Spielberg-style onto a modern suburban middle-class setting. (Specifically, for those who don't know, it's the story of otherworldly water nymphs who occasionally visit the human race in order to warn them of upcoming evil, as well as to alert them of saviors within their midst who will eventually save them from this evil, but with these spirits bound to a series of byzantine rules encompassed within a group of complex archetypes such as the "Author" and the "Guardian" and the "Healer" who help her navigate her time among the land-locked mortals; in our particular case, this nymph appears in the algae-infested swimming pool of a low-rent apartment complex on the edge of Philadelphia, with the various residents of this complex serving as the totems to let this mermaid-type creature work her magic.) When viewed in this spirit, it's actually not that terrible, and it makes you realize that much of this movie's backlash has to do with the studio promoting it at the time as "Yet Another Mindfucking Twist From The Brilliant Mind of M. Night Shyamalan!!!," which it clearly isn't and that Shyamalan clearly never meant it to be in the first place.

But that said, the movie has its problems too, ones that are quite objective and have nothing to do with unfair audience expectations. I'm not interested in sitting here and doing a big list, but I will mention the most egregious problem of all, which is Shyamalan's decision to invoke "Ancient! Chinese! Secret! Syndrome" to explain what's going on, in which all the plot points are told to us as an audience through an adorably disagreeable, disagreeably adorable little raisin-like elderly Asian woman, who informs us that this entire storyline just happens to exactly follow the folktales that her own even more adorably disagreeable grandmother used to tell her as a child, and which conveniently happens to be a folktale that no white person has ever heard of and that never got translated in the Medieval period into a Grimm Brothers tale. As a person of color himself, it's really kind of shameful that Shyamalan relies on such a hoary old racial stereotype in which to convey his plot; and that's a neat encapsulation of all the things wrong with this movie, that Shyamalan chooses to zig instead of zag at over a dozen points during this movie's running time, opting over and over and over to pick easy cringe-inducing outs instead of sticking with it and writing a smarter, more interesting script, the very thing that got him so much adulation during early films like The Sixth Sense, and that now in the 2010s is getting him admiration again for clever screenplays like Split.

And then...and then there's the hubris again, which is the real nail in the coffin here. Namely, Shyamalan's decision to cast himself in his first major acting part (although he's appeared in every movie he's ever made, it's most often been as a tiny cameo in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock), here portraying a currently unknown writer who the water nymph assures us will eventually write a project that will literally save the universe; and if this wasn't enough, he also includes a character at the apartment complex who is a movie critic who has recently moved into town (played by a disagreeably sneering Bob Balaban), who is the very embodiment of snooty, pissy, unfairly disparaging arts analyst, who is quite literally given monologues to perform in which he takes a giant dump all over the exact plot turns we're watching unfold on the screen in front of us. (Actual quote: "Oh my god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character.") Either one of these characters would be bad enough; but both in the same film, hot on the heels of Shyamalan secretly producing a documentary about himself for cable television, in which it's posited with a straight face that he literally has magical powers in real life, was just way too much for aught-2000s audiences to swallow anymore, a major factor in this movie's violent rejection which still stands eleven years later as an entirely rational and intelligent thing for those audiences to have done.

But, hey, I don't mean to take a shit all over Shyamalan here; the whole reason I'm even bothering to do such a long writeup, after all, is because I'm so impressed with the way he's turned himself around as a public intellectual here in the 2010s. It's not often that a celebrity buys into his own publicity team's hype and eventually learns to reject that hype and re-embrace the small smart things that turned him into a celebrity in the first place; much more often we see a situation like Rob Schneider or David Spade, truly despicable monsters who double-down on the hype the less and less audiences are willing to accept it, manipulating the Hollywood Machine to keep themselves in the public eye no matter what kinds of humiliating depths they need to sink themselves to in order to continue getting their four minutes on the latest episode of "Entertainment Tonight." It's an ultra-rare thing, and worthy of our respect, when someone like Shyamalan looks at his hype, rejects it, and chooses to retreat all the way back to the beginning of his career again, happily accepting assignments for tiny-budgeted little grindhouse drive-in B-pics (the production and promotional budget for Lady in the Water was $100 million; the figure for his "comeback" movie, 2015's "evil grandma" film The Visit, was $5 million), and really hunkering down and sincerely trying to make the smartest, most terrifying movie he can out of those limited resources. That's highly worthy of admiration; but that doesn't stop Lady in the Water from being a cautionary tale of it all going wrong, a movie that would've already been problematic even as a little indie from an unknown director, but becomes its own unique definition of catastrofuck when coming from "M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE."

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