Lesson from a Fractured Fairy Tale

I really wanted to like M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, Lady in the Water. Monday afternoon Lisa suggested, last-minute-like, we catch a flick. Getting me to the show is a chore, not because I don't like movies, but because I believe so few of them are worth the money. I knew Shyamalan's film was out there; I also knew it was getting panned by critics. Anyway, we went and I was disappointed.

However, I gleaned something very important from the movie...something I'm sure the director did not intend for gleaning.

Even though the underlying message behind Lady in the Water is extremely positive, Shyamalan is dangerously close to a rut. What worked in his first, best film, The Sixth Sense, is not just ho-hum, it's almost laughable. If it wasn't for Paul Giamatti's performance -- he was also terrific in Sideways and Cinderella Man -- the film would sink under its implausibility.

And, sad to say, that's what I took away from the movie.

I don't think I'm giving much away by the following info, besides the storyline is established in the first two minutes. It goes like this: Once, creatures of the land lived in harmony with creatures of the sea. But (as creatures of the land are wont to do), we wandered, became dense and generally irritable. Every so often, inhabitants of the Blue World return to knock some sense into their bipedal, clay-clinging counterparts. Enter Story, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, a river nymph or Narf who flops about in the community swimming pool, seeking to enlighten a certain soul.

At this stage, I'm already having a very hard time buying it.

But what really prevented a wholesale leap of logic, was the protag, Cleveland Heep, played by Giamatti. After discovering that a giant eagle will return for the Narf if it's not first killed by an organic canine called a Scrunt (no, I'm not kidding), and that the mean green wolverines are so hell-bent they will endure the wrath of the Tartutics, simian-like gatekeepers that nestle in the trees around the pool, Mr. Heep nods his head and says, "Okay, let's do this."

That's when I lost it.

In between, you have lines like this:

"A Scrunt would do anything to kill a Madam Narf -- even fight his fear of the Tartutic."

Try saying that with a straight face. Along the way, a cast of cardboard characters jump on board with nary a "Narf? Scrunt? Are you nuts?"

I write fiction. Asking your readers to suspend disbelief is a necessary element of storytelling. However even fairy stories have rules. Establishing these rules and laws, and living by them, is an essential part of advancing the plot...no matter how far-fetched it may be. People will buy into a giant ape named Kong climbing the Empire State building, so long as the law of gravity works. Even King Kong must go splat. Shyamalan violates this basic rule. At no point in this film did I get the sense that the characters were resistant to, or skeptical of, the fantastic assertions. When introducing things like Narfs and Scrunts and Tartutics, taking time to build a plausible springboard would seem essential. However, the players' unquestioned acceptance of the wild storyline left me unconvinced, stranded at square one.

I so wanted to like this movie -- and there were some sweet things about it -- but Shyamalan did not take time to make it palatable, plausible. He left me at the dock while his fairy boat sailed into la-la land; he erected a King Kong in zero gravity. In the case of Lady in the Water, a little incredulouty would have went a long way. Note to self: When writing about Narfs, Scrunts and giant eagles, assume skepticism.


Mirtika said...

Ooooh, good review. :)

I'm sorry this didn't work for M. Knight. I'd have loved to see his follow-up to the okay "The Village" be something that dazzled me. (And I loved that Howard gal in The Village, she and Joaquin's interactions and chemistry made that movie work for me.)


Gina Holmes said...

Bummer. Good review though. I'll save my money. Thnaks Mike. Interesting how you analyze the movie with an eye for applying it to your own writing. Always learning, that makes for a great writer.

Tim Frankovich said...

Honestly? I never even noticed the lack of skepticism. Maybe I'm just too big a fan of fairy tales and fantasy. But my wife and I both loved this movie, and I'm truly saddened by its poor performance, considering what a beautiful film it was. I've seen it twice and can't wait for the DVD.