M. Night Shyamalan says the storyline of “Lady in the Water” originated in a bedtime fairy tale he improvised for his children. Possibly it would work better as a movie if we were all in bed with the kids and could fall asleep in comfort about a third of the way through. With any luck, this picture will provide the self-administered kick in the butt that its gifted director clearly needs.
Shyamalan exploded into the big time in 1999 with his wickedly intricate third film, “The Sixth Sense.” He followed that with a moody comic-book fantasy, the sadly underrated “Unbreakable” (a classic origin-story that still cries out for a sequel). Problems started cropping up in his 2002 feature, “Signs,” a space-invasion yarn in which the director made the considerable mistake of dragging his shadowy aliens too far into the light. (They turned out to be little green men, only bigger.) Then, in 2004, came “The Village,” which many viewers found to be an infuriatingly preposterous audience-cheat.
Shyamalan has now parted ways with Disney, which released his last four films, because the studio exhibited insufficient enthusiasm for making this one. One understands the company’s reservations. The 35-year-old director here appears to be staking a very large claim, possibly stoked by too-frequent contemplation of his earlier press notices, as a unique artist who can take even the wispiest narrative material and, through sheer technical and imaginative facility, make it vibrate with deep meaning and mythic resonance. If this was in fact his intention, he has failed utterly. This picture not only dispenses with the clever plotting that distinguished his most popular films, it also turns its back on some of the basic elements that make movies fun to watch.
The story overflows with absurdities. The protagonist, played by Paul Giamatti with his usual expertise, is ridiculously named Cleveland Heep. He’s the superintendent of an apartment-building complex in the Pennsylvania hinterlands. This place is pointedly called the Cove, and its tenants are a lifeboat-style assortment of colorfully quirky individuals: an unassimilated Korean woman and her hyper-Americanized daughter; an Indian-American writer (Shyamalan’s largest role yet in one of his movies); a black crossword-puzzle fanatic; a nice lady who loves animals; a grumpy recluse who loves nobody; a Puerto Rican bodybuilder who exercises only the right side of his physique, for some reason; and a sour-faced newcomer who turns out to be a film critic. (Anyone who remembers the vitriolic reviews rained down upon “The Village” will know this character must come to an unpleasant end).
Cleveland finds an ethereal-looking girl gurgling around in the courtyard pool one night. She says that her name (I couldn’t make this up, and I’m amazed that Shyamalan did) is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). She’s a “narf,” a creature from “the Blue World,” who’s taken up residence in an alcove beneath the pool. She’s journeyed here to locate a person who’s fated to do something of major consequence for the world. (Guess which character this turns out to be.) Now she has to make her way home again on the back of the “Great Eatlon” (a big eagle), whose arrival she nervously awaits. Meanwhile, she’s being menaced by a “scrunt,” a nasty, grass-backed, hyena-like creature that looks very much like the lawn when it lies flat amid the shrubbery outside. The scrunt is in turn menaced by the “Tartutics,” a trio of fierce, monkey-esque beings who hide in the trees. Got that? I didn’t think so.
What does all this mean? Not much — not anything, actually, although Cleveland becomes convinced, for the most unconvincing of reasons, that the key to the whole boring mess is contained in an ancient Korean folk tale, and that the Korean mother upstairs, who unfortunately speaks no English, knows all about it.
I won’t go on, although Lord knows, Shyamalan does. The story is exceedingly dull; to become involved in it would require not just a suspension of disbelief, but a suspension of mental faculties altogether. The characters are little more than broad-stroke doodles (an apartment full of heavy smokers is particularly uninteresting), and despite the efforts of such fine actors as Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Sarita Choudhury, Bill Irwin and Mary Beth Hurt, they really serve little purpose other than to illustrate the movie’s leaden family-of-man theme. Such action as there is comes in the form of simple boo-level startlements, and apart from one brief, brilliant monologue by the ill-fated film critic (played by Bob Balaban), the dialogue is a desultory verbal blur. After a while, you marvel that the actors can be bothered to continue giving voice to it.
“Lady in the Water” is a bewildering misstep for a director of Shyamalan’s caliber. Its flaccid pretension suggests a radical misunderstanding of his strengths as a filmmaker; and the large, key role he’s written into the picture for himself suggests an unattractive arrogance. Since the man seems determined to make his movies as nearby as possible to his farm and family in rural Pennsylvania, it must also be said that the Keystone State greenery is starting to look tediously familiar — haven’t we seen that damn tree, that same dumb bush, before? Maybe it’s time for Shyamalan to venture farther out into the world, and to show us a little more of it. Nobody’s going to want to see more of this.
“My Super Ex-Girlfriend”: Soar Loser
A picture with a cute premise: guy takes up with pretty girl; she turns out to be a superhero; he tries to break it off; she becomes super, super angry. Unfortunately, the premise has to do a considerable amount of the comedic heavy-lifting on its own; it’s not worked out in as much humorous detail as it might have been, and it lacks a certain bounce, sparkle, magic. Still, as summer entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse. (See above.)
Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) is a Manhattan design consultant who’s weary of dating crazy New York women. One day, on the subway, he spots Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman), an art-gallery owner, and sidles over to hit on her. When a thief suddenly snatches Jenny’s purse, Matt gives chase and ultimately retrieves it. Jenny is effusively grateful. “I have to help people every day,” she says, mysteriously, “but nobody ever helps me. Except you — you’re my hero.”
Jenny is borderline mousy (or as mousy as Uma Thurman can be made to look), but on the side she’s actually G-Girl — and G-Girl, with her cascade of glorious blonde hair and her sexy superhero costume, is a knockout. Like many a Manhattanite, though, she has little time for a personal life. She’s too caught up in her career — flying around the city sweeping carloads of thugs off the streets, or blowing out burning buildings like big urban birthday candles. When Matt bumbles along, she’s ready for some romantic downtime.
Jenny tells Matt her real identity. He likes it, and no wonder. Sex with G-Girl is earth-shaking — or at least bed-wrecking — and it’s especially arousing when she agrees to put on her costume for a little carnal role-playing. (“You’ve been a very evil boy,” G-Girl purrs. “I think you need to be brought to justice.”) After a while, though, her alarmingly high-strung nature starts getting on Matt’s nerves. (She’s jealous and paranoid, and prone to punch her fist through windows when riled.) When you get right down to it, she’s really just another crazy New York woman.
Matt slowly realizes that he’s actually in love with a colleague at his office, a girl named Hannah (Anna Faris). Hannah is super only in the adorability department; she’s otherwise entirely down to earth — perfect for our guy. But how to break this bad news to the volatile G-Girl? Matt consults his loutish buddy, Vaughn (Rainn Wilson), who offers a simple solution: “Don’t return any of her calls for a year and a half.” Valuing his life, Matt decides on a more immediate approach — the classic “maybe we need to spend some time apart” line. G-Girl is so enraged by this that she flies straight up through the ceiling of his apartment, leaving him standing in a shower of rubble with her curses reverberating all around him.
She doesn’t stay gone for long, naturally. As Matt attempts to pursue his romance with Hannah, G-Girl is always hovering about outside his apartment window or soaring by overhead. She steals his car and sends it orbiting around town. She uses her laser eyes to burn the word “dick” onto his forehead — an awkward embellishment to explain at his company’s morning meetings.
Throughout all of this, G-Girl is being stalked by her longtime nemesis, an evil mastermind called Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard). Bedlam is actually a guy Jenny Johnson dumped in high school, after an encounter with an exploding meteor gave her those G-Girl powers (and a very hot body), and overnight made her the most popular girl in their class. Bedlam can’t understand what she sees in Matt. (“I’m just a man like you,” the Professor tells him, soft-pedaling his contempt, “but with 10 times the money, intelligence, and taste.”) However, noting that Matt is desperate to get G-Girl out of his life, Bedlam recruits him to execute a nefarious plan to drain her of her powers.
The movie has some funny scenes (one of them, involving a large fish, is a madly hilarious comic invention), and there’s no shortage of witty lines. (The script is by Don Payne, who once worked on “The Simpsons.”) But there’s an odd hollowness to the proceedings. Luke Wilson’s screen persona is too neurotically diffident for a romantic lead — he’s such an overgrown dweeb, we don’t understand what G-Girl sees in him, no matter how romantically desperate she may be. (Aren’t there any super men here in the original Gotham for her to hook up with?) Anna Faris deploys her sparkly babe-ness to appealing effect, but Eddie Izzard — so mind-boilingly brilliant in his one-man stage shows — is wasted yet again in a flatly conceived film role. He has the evil-mastermind thing down — the ominous mutter, the sinister goatee — but we never actually see him doing anything evil. The character is no fun. And while special effects aren’t the point of this whimsical comedy, they’re still necessary for all the flying-around that’s required, as well as the plummeting meteors, the radiating space junk, the laser-eyes thing. But the effects that have been created for these purposes are extremely cheesy — they might’ve been scribbled in by monkeys with digital pencils. Maybe this is supposed to be some sort of subtle joke — a knowing nudge about the low-budget cheesiness of old superhero movies. But if so … so what?
The director, Ivan Reitman, was a master of mainstream comedy blockbusters back in the day, with hits like “Ghostbusters,” “Kindergarten Cop” and the iconic “Animal House.” He’s become more of a producer in later years, and his comic touch seems a little rusty. “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not quite super enough.
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