Water Logged

M. Night Shyamalan loses his touch with surreality; Kevin Smith stays afloat

click to enlarge BLAND AND THE MAIDEN: Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti in Lady in the Water. - 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures
2006 Warner Bros. Pictures
BLAND AND THE MAIDEN: Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti in <>Lady in the Water.

With his box-turtle posture and forlorn expression, Paul Giamatti is the cinema's reigning prince of abject misfortune. His appearance in a film now virtually guarantees a story in which some failure-haunted chump will try and scramble out from under the Ziggy storm cloud that fate has hung above him.

And Lady in the Water, directed by spiritual-spook jock M. Night Shyamalan, does not fail to give Giamatti his loser props.

Giamatti's Cleveland Heep has a tragic back story, a pained stutter and a job as a maintenance man at Philadelphia's Cove apartment building. He opens the film battling a grotesque bug beneath a tenant's kitchen sink in anticipation of the monster-fighting to come.

Like Richard Dreyfuss' sad-sack dad in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cleveland has a chance to escape his degraded reality via contact with the eternal. In this case, the extraterrestrial is a beautiful water nymph or "Narf" named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, from Shyamalan's 2004 The Village) living in the Cove's pool, sporting Daryl Hannah's wavy-mermaid locks and the agitated expression of Carrie's haunted teen.

A setup that is plausible within Shyamalan's supernatural oeuvre soon becomes implausible for more earthbound reasons. Industry tongues have been wagging over Disney's decision to pass on Lady in the Water, and based on evidence of this film, Disney's was a justified bailout. Shyamalan's script has the slapdash feel of a writer strapped for ideas and madly grasping at half-baked, increasingly illogical straws to keep the momentum going.

And the spirit of goodwill that has marked previous Shyamalan efforts has crumbled into vapid cliché. The director's East Indian heritage doesn't apparently make him any more sensitive to Hollywood's ethnic stereotypes, like the shrill, bickering Korean mother and tarty me-love-you-long-time daughter who help Cleveland understand Story by giving him his first insights into Narf legend.

It just so happens that Cove resident Mrs. Choi was sent off to slumberland each night by an ancient Korean Narf folk tale, in which a human guardian and a host of helpmates are assigned to protect a stranded Narf as she attempts to return to her Blue World.

In a plotline so convoluted to repeat it would risk ennobling it, the oddball Cove dwellers — bodybuilders, fishwives, depressives, potheads, hippie grannies, an aspiring writer (played by Shyamalan) and African-American single dad (Jeffrey Wright) — come together to help Story escape the An American Werewolf in London beasts lurking in the forest surrounding the apartment complex.

Like his acknowledged idol, Steven Spielberg, Shyamalan is married to the cozy, threatened domestic sphere, the American home whose threats from without only make it stronger. A child of Philadelphia's Main Line, Shyamalan and his films romanticize the hardships and redemption of ordinary, lovable working-class schlumps and their ability (whether in Spielberg's War of the Worlds or Shyamalan's Signs) to rise above, join together and stave off the vaguely apocalyptic future.

In Shyamalan's affirmative, pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo, there is lip service given to how each member of this diverse community has a purpose. Like working-class superheroes, they use their crossword puzzle-solving powers and gentle way with animals to help Story return to her world. It's only this Hotel California's resident nerdy film and book critic (Bob Balaban) who suffers the wrath of Shyamalan. When he proves too much of a know-it-all in his appraisal of film plot, Shyamalan exacts his revenge.

Anytime Shyamalan's story lags, Cleveland returns to Mrs. Choi's apartment for updates to the folklore, which becomes as labyrinthine as tuning in to a midyear-episode of All My Children. Movie vampires were once felled by relatively clear-cut means — stakes to the heart and garlic necklaces — but in Shyamalan's tangled folklore there are endless, tortuous-to-behold rules involving Narf-mud, tree-climbing Tartutics and their hairy Scrunt enemies who can sometimes only be seen in mirrors.

By the time Cleveland swims into the secret tunnel inside his swimming pool where Story lives, Shyamalan has surrendered any pretense of logic, or even awed wonder in the world he has imagined. Audiences are willing to believe anything if the director gives them reason to, but Shyamalan's heart just doesn't feel like it's in this one.

While it doesn't pack the fresh creative punch of Kevin Smith's original low-budget classic, Clerks II is still a reasonably funny follow-up to a movie that was pretty darn good standing all on its own. Picking up more than a decade after Clerks, the movie opens with sardonic store clerk Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) discovering that the Quick Stop where he works has met a most unfortunate end. The black-and-white aesthetic slides into Technicolor and fast-forwards a year to Mooby's, a cow-themed burger joint where Dante is headed for his last day of work with his now co-worker and former Quick Stop partner-in-crime, the abrasive, trash-talking Randal (Jeff Anderson). On his horizon is a future away from New Jersey and a fresh start in Florida with his lovely, devoted fiancée Emma (played by Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's real life wife). The Mooby's customers are a little less inspired than those who wandered in and out of the Quick Stop, and Clerks II has more of a Hollywood feel, with its unnecessary physical comedy and uncomfortable love triangle. However, the elements that make it a Kevin Smith film — the quick-witted dialogue, the keen attention to and satire of pop culture, the ability to almost seamlessly make reference to previous movies — are all still present, along with his penchant for throwing in plenty of sexual obscenities and extremely lowbrow humor. All this is punctuated by the wall-leaning antics of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), who are still dealing drugs but loving Jesus and practicing sobriety in the midst of various entertaining dance sequences, the best being a Silence of the Lambs homage that you really have to see to appreciate. Also stars Rosario Dawson and Trever Fehrmann. —Leilani Polk

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