M. Night Shyamalans (ego)maniacal bedtime story

What does it all add up to? Story is an innocent—okay, we get that—and there are references both subtle (TV and radio reports about the war in Iraq) and less so (Shyamalan's character asking "Does man deserve to be saved?") to the fact that we are living in troubled times. The motifs are certainly familiar: a sage child (The Sixth Sense), supernatural characters placed in a hypernatural setting (Unbreakable) and myriad crises of faith (Signs). But it's ultimately tough to tell what Shyamalan is trying to say—beyond the obvious "Wouldn't it be great if a sea-nymph with world-saving powers suddenly jumped out of your swimming pool?"—or why he's chosen such a rambling, roundabout manner of saying it. In the press notes for the film, Shyamalan admits that Lady in the Water is based on a "bedtime story" he improvised for his two young daughters, and while I won't question the sweet-dreams value of a story that involves wars and grisly beasties and deaths both actual and foretold, Shyamalan is right about one thing: Lady in the Water feels very much like something its author made up as he went along; and, if it weren't so damn weird, it would most certainly put you right to sleep.

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This is the fourth film Shyamalan has directed since The Sixth Sense (1999) earned its then-29-year-old maker two Oscar nominations and racked up nearly $700 million in worldwide box-office receipts, and it offers the most compelling evidence yet of just how much that early success may have been more of a curse than a blessing. Shyamalan can do whatever he wants, it is said, but what he chooses to do is doggedly try to recapture Sixth Sense lightning in a bottle—to dazzle us with one twist ending more elaborate than the last, to awe us with the dime-store Buddhism that imposes succinct order onto events that would be better off left random. (Remember Signs and "Swing away"?) It's not surprising that Shyamalan is so driven—he comes from a family of doctors, and he has often cited Steven Spielberg as his moviemaking idol. But consider that, at this same point in his career, Spielberg had already made The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., and suddenly Shyamalan starts to more closely resemble George Lucas, serving out his 30-year sentence in Star Wars jail. There's no question that Shyamalan can do remarkable things—his last (and, to my mind, best) film, The Village, turned on an ingenuous metaphor for isolationism and self-deception, before becoming undone by so much needless trickery. But consider the totality of his career and he does not seem to have advanced, and now Lady in the Water is unmistakably a setback, as well as a warning to potential detractors. You are, it seems, either with M. Night Shyamalan or against him, and this time I must take up residence in the latter camp, though I do so with a watchful eye cast over my shoulder. For I am deathly afraid of scrunts.



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