I have a long and tangled relationship with Lady In The Water. Back when I appeared regularly on a poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie review panel show my professional arch-nemesis accused me of liking Sideways solely because I looked and acted exactly like Paul Giamatti's drunken, bitter, success-impaired protagonist. There's probably more truth to that assertion than I'd like to admit. Later I was asked to audition to be a guest critic on Ebert & Roeper and turned in what I'd like to think was a swell review of Lady In The Water, though my audition didn't fare any better with Disney executives than Lady In The Water did with critics or audiences (or Disney executives for that matter). To add insult to injury the woman who accused me of being Giamatti's evil twin did in fact appear as a guest critic on Ebert & Roeper. Boy, that did wonders for my ego.
So I guess you could say that Night's epic folly is wrapped up in a personal disappointment of my own. The crucial difference is that Night failed with the whole world watching. Heck, Night even had a private scribe on hand documenting every miscalculation for posterity's sake, a Boswell to his world-conquering Samuel Johnson. And though some have criticized the ensuing non-fiction tome, The Man Who Heard Voices Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairy Tale for being overly worshipful and sycophantic I think Michael Bamberger should be commended for managing to write an entire book with his head wedged so far up Night's ass.
Night did something similar for The Village, where he got Nathaniel Kahn to compromise his professional reputation by making The Buried Secret Of M. Night Shyamalan, an extraordinarily silly puff piece devoted to Night's rapidly dwindling cult of personality. Watching Buried Secret and reading The Man Who Heard Voices it's easy to get the impression that control-freak-super-deluxe Night is furtively helming the mockumentary and book through Kahn and Bamberger. The book and faux-documentary are less penetrating investigations into the mysteries of the creative process than worshipful retellings of Night's finely honed self-mythology.
In Bamberger's telling Night was betrayed by Disney, a once visionary company that had lost its nerve and chutzpah. The book's central trauma involves a disastrous dinner where Disney exec Nina Jacobson, Night's beloved corporate mommy, expresses considerable reservations about the script for Lady In The Water but offered to finance the film anyway. Alas, this clearly isn't good enough for the thin-skinned auteur, who'd settle for nothing less than being told he's a special little man who's about to make the bestest movie ever. In retrospect all of Jacobson's criticisms are dead-on but in Bamberger's telling they reflect only the cowardice of a corporation intent on having Night recycle The Sixth Sense for the rest of his career. Bamberger stops just short of suggesting that Disney was lukewarm at best on Lady because top executive positions there are held by Scrunts, the fantastical hyena-like creature that leaped straight from Night's fevered imagination right into the dustbin of pop cultural history.
Bamberger betrays his background as a sportswriter by comparing Night to Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan on seemingly every page. Then again maybe it's good that the author sticks to sports metaphors: Bamberger's pop-culture tone-deafness is best exemplified by a glorious, glorious, horrible, horrible sentence where the author writes that if Lady succeeded it would be like "Dylan and Clapton and Springsteen and Eminem and Kanye West and Miles Davis and Bonnie Raitt and Joan Armatrading and Jerry Garcia and every musician you've ever loved joining George Harrison and belting out the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" at the same time". Wow. Whatever editor let that sentence slide should be tried for war crimes against pop culture and the English language.
Lady In The Water began life as a bedtime story for Night's children. That's where it should have ended. The film begins with a lovely, spare animated sequence artfully spelling out the film's complicated back story about magical sea nymphs, ferocious "Scrunts", Korean mythology and a giant eagle. The movie never stops unpacking its mythology but it's never again handled with such understated grace.
Lady then skips deliriously from the sacred to the ridiculous as sad-sack super Paul Giamatti tries to kill a bug for a gaggle of hysterical Hispanic women. So far, so good: Lady's first ten minutes indelibly convey its creator's unparalleled genius for melding the fantastic with the everyday. Everything that follows however suggests that Night's game is way, way off.
Giamatti soon discovers a naked sea nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the apartment complex's pool and devotes himself to unlocking the secret of Howard's origins and ultimate spiritual destiny. At this point the film stops moving forward and begins swallowing itself. Night's latest cinematic puzzle becomes a movie about characters in an M. Night Shyamalan movie trying to figure out one of Night's metaphysical riddles. Lady is an earnest tribute to the power of storytelling in which the storytelling is hopelessly muddled.
Pop storytellers like Night offer audiences an implicit promise with each film: trust me and I'll tell you a ripping story and show you wonderful things. But here Night betrays that trust: there's no reward awaiting audiences at the end of Lady, just the sad spectacle of a great storyteller running out of surprises.
Night wants audiences to put away their adult cynicism and embrace a child-like sense of wonder but continually undercuts that whimsy with cheap shots at his critics and unbecoming bouts of megalomania. I'm not even going to get into Night's performance as a genius writer whose words have world-shaping consequences or Bob Balaban's kicky turn as a black-hearted film critic (Boo! Hiss!)
Night set out to make an E.T for his kid's generation. Instead he's made a bloated, alternately dour and crass exercise in self-homage that suggests what might happen if Dylan and Clapton and Springsteen and Eminem and Kanye West and Miles Davis and Bonnie Raitt and Joan Armatrading and Jerry Garcia and every musician you've ever loved joined George Harrison in hitting the same bum note together simultaneously.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Fiasco