A Narf Is a Narf, Already!
M. Night Shyamalan goes off the deep end with “Lady in the Water.”
By Billy Frolick
For the first time in a while, the pop-culture punching bag du jour is not a plagiarist for a major metropolitan newspaper but a filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan.
Since his critically lauded 1999 box office smash “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan, we have been led to believe, has gotten a bit full of himself.
This can hardly be deemed his fault. Who among us does not feel we have a unique talent, a story to tell, a worldview to express? Who doesn’t want to spend tens of millions of other people’s dollars realizing their own, personal vision, and bossing around prestigious, high-priced actors?
All of Shyamalan’s stories have had a spiritual aspect. Now, the rap seems to be—with him burning bridges at major studios, rubber-stamping brown-nose biographies, appearing in interminable credit card commercials, and even doing a significant role in his latest picture—that he himself is playing God.
Admittedly, WWSD?—“What would Shyamalan do?”—doesn’t have a great ring, particularly since no one knows how to pronounce the dude’s name. But it’s unlikely that anyone will even be asking the question after seeing his latest film, “Lady in the Water,” which proves the writer-director to be mortal, indeed. Shyamalan may have been able to disguise triteness and pretentiousness as spiritual vision in his first few studio outings (excepting “The Sixth Sense,” natch), but he’s unable to sustain the charade in this one.
The movie, which has concurrently been published as a children’s book, opens with a sequence of animated cave paintings that wouldn’t look out of place in a “South Park” episode. The accompanying narration offers a facile and condescending explanation of the origins of war. The thesis is that when man dwelled in water, there was no conflict, but as soon as they adopted their territorial ways, the battles began. Land savage, water peaceful. (Just don’t tell that to Captain Jack Sparrow and the guy with the starfish stuck on his cheek.)
The curtain opens on Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep, a depressed, stuttering building manager who finds a naked water nymph—technically, called a “Narf,” she explains—in his complex’s swimming pool.
The girl informs him that “Cleveland” means “From the great cliffs.” At this point anyone with a scintilla of cultural literacy will already be rolling in the aisles, as Cleveland hardly conjures up images of great cliffs. Not only was the Mistake by the Lake the butt of every vaudeville joke, it was also the best punch line in “Tootsie,” and is now most famous as the home of a designer pyramid honoring Ike Turner, Phil Spector, and Dick Clark.
(Shyamalan proudly resides in Philadelphia, which has endured its own P.R. humiliations; draw your own conclusion.)
The Narf in question—Bryce Howard, who looks like a naked, hairy version of her famous filmmaker father, Ron Howard—is saddled with a pretty funky handle herself…Story. No, really. That’s her name, Story. And as things unfold, there are moments when Cleveland whines her appellation that viewers could easily mistake as pleas to the writer—“Story! Story!—the way a Shakespearean actor in rehearsal demands from the wings, “Line! Line!”
As the lower-case story progresses, Cleveland brings the upper-case Story into his pad, sits her on his couch, and dries her off.
At this point, Shyamalan veers from the realistic approach, in which the landlord would praise Allah that his lonely nights of Cinemax, baby oil, and microwave pizza are finally over. In that version, Cleveland would simply pinch himself, jump the ancient nymph’s brittle bones, and keep his mouth shut about having won the lottery. (As Neil Young might say, “A man needs a [mer]maid.”) Cooking for two, he would no longer feel forlorn. He and the virtually mute, green-cardless alien wouldn’t have a lot to talk about, but then, t-t-talking was never his strong suit anyway. Life would go on, only now it would be like a new version of “The Odd Couple” starring Woody and Soon-Yi.
Shyamalan’s take on men—and here’s where the fantasy element kicks in—is that Cleveland has a conscience, and wants to figure out what makes the woman in his life tick. It quickly becomes his raison d’etre to help Story return to the motherland (or, motherwater, as the case may be), Blue World. The problem is, evil forces conspire to prevent this, particularly in the form of a wolf-creature called a “Scrunt.” Shyamalan often seems to be cutting around this cheesy special effect, which looks like something from those movies John Sayles used to write so he could afford to make “Eight Men Out” and “Matewan.”
Two acts of banal plot machinations follow, which not only fail to engage interest, but get more and more talky and convoluted. A good sign that a storyteller has run out of ideas is when a character asks a question about a nonsensical, made-up thing (“Blue World”), and the response is another nonsensical made-up thing (“Scrunt”).
If you’ve experienced this in the past, chances are that you’d either accidentally channel-surfed to "Battlefield Earth," a "Star Trek" rerun, or you were listening to your sleepy eight year-old making up a story (“Dad—wouldn’t it be, like totally sick if a whole army of Scrunts attacked Blue World? Dad? Are you awake?”). We may now add to this august list “Lady in the Water,” which also introduces an eagle called the “Great Eatlon,” and “Tartutics,” which is not a new exercise craze but a breed of Scrunt-busting monkeys.
I haven’t touched on Shyamalan’s doe-eyed performance as the movie’s soulful oracle, his desperate, late attempt at comic relief at the expense of a film critic, or the Spielbergian third act, in which the tenants band together to lovingly send back the Narf.
Maybe M. Night Shyamalan is a prophet after all, and he knew his career was in trouble. Isn’t the first sign writing a children’s book, anyway? What’s next, letting Rick Rubin produce your album?
Now let me prophesize. Of four things I am certain – 1) Shyamalan will not direct one of his original scripts for the studios again anytime soon. But 2) he will create a “Sixth Sense”-like television pilot that a network will proudly announce as a full series order. And 3) a sequel to “The Sixth Sense” will go into development as well. (I see dead people at the box office.)
Oh, yeah, and 4):
There will be no sequel to “Lady in the Water.”
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Billy Frolick co-wrote the 2005 film “Madagascar,” and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Premiere, The Los Angeles Times, and Movieline, among other publications. He’s the pseudonymous author of four book-length parodies, including “The Philistine Prophecy” and “The Five People You Meet in Hell,” which was excerpted at SoMA here.
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