Worst or “Worst”: Lady in the Water

A note on “worst”: As mentioned before, this series is an attempt to dissect some of the alleged “worst” movies of all time, and primarily not a hope to actually find them. It is ridiculous and arguably mean-spirited to refer to any of M. Night’s films as among the worst ever made. They are a special sort of badness, and he is now four films deep into a wonderful, scorching form of incompetence, but it is wrong-headed to claim that “the worst movies ever made” all happen to be well-budgeted Hollywood films from the past ten years from a major director and with major stars.

What these films are, instead, are the most hurtful films in their badness, being that they corralled budgets and talent and screening time in major theaters and producers and such. In other words, M. Night Shyamalan’s films, like say some of the perpetual targets on lists of “worst” films ever, say Batman and Robin or Battlefield Earth, are notable not because of being the most artistically inept films ever made (although Battlefield Earth makes a great argument for itself on this front). They are notable because they are among the most artistically inept films ever made to ride notable budgets and be marketed in major motion picture theaters. It is a small but important distinction, and it allows us to move away from claims of “worst” and just get to the meat of these awful despicable films without having to back-up claims that they are legitimately artistically inferior to say, a horror film your dad made with his friends and a curling iron in 1973 that got screened once by a theater-runner, presumably via misdirection or trickery or losing a bet in a back alley.

That being said, the realm of “Hollywood” usually dictates a certain smoothed-out polish to even the worst movies, and it is always special when something rises to the challenge to deliver something that is not only bad but bad in a husky, throaty, bellicose way, a film that struts its badness. Taking a bunch of Hollywood’s money and running away with it is always an achievement of some kind. These things don’t come around often, and they should be rewarded somehow.

Which is where I come in…

Yeah, yeah, M. Night Shyamalan had the gall to name a movie “The Happening”. Yeah, yeah, he adapted a much beloved animated serial into something fairly close to an abomination. Yeah, yeah, he continued to provide Will Smith with reasons to not especially succeed at the box office, and he almost single-handedly stunted the growth of Smith’s son Jayden before the young actor even had a chance (although Jayden helped his lack of future career plenty here too). None of that matters. Lady in the Water is Shyamalan’s worst movie, and it is easy to see why: it was the film where he was given the most control. As decent visualist and not much of a storyteller, Shyamalan’s brain is in solid, no-frills spooky thrills and haunted house movies, using misdirection and framing to establish crawling mood and atmosphere. The problem is that his heart is very much in a different place. Specifically, it is in “understanding the state of things as we know it”; he is a craftsperson who fancies himself a preacher and a conceptual artist in one, and if his competent at the first one, he is a new kind of awful at the second and third.

Yes, a preacher and a conceptual artist with no idea of art and even less worthy of being preached. For Lady in the Water, he took both of these troubles to new heights, indulging in all of his fancies about how the world functions and sabotaging his film from the ground-up. While some of his other works fail at the level of direction or screenplay, Lady in the Water is awful in even the broad strokes. As Shyamalan sees it, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a scrubby, struggling apartment complex superintendent beset by his own melancholy and the increasingly obvious melancholy of those around him, even the supposed creative types that seem to flock to him with suspicious frequency and magnetism. One day, he discovers Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a, and I am not making this up, “Narf” who has entered our world from another dimension and seeks the writer who will someday produce a text that will save the world. Okay, except she does not know who the writer is, and she needs Heep’s help to make sense of the puzzle box thrown in front of her.

Which is egotistical and stubborn to begin with, but even the idea does not capture the bone-headed, cackling badness of Shyamalan’s screenplay and his devil may care attitude toward anything from human speech to narrative structure to using words like “Scrunt” . This is a film loaded with elastic badness and blistering intoxicants such as the soulless dialogue that is made all the worse because its entire existence is spent searching for a soul, or Shyamalan’s idea of it. Elsewhere, there is the devil’s parade of characters that vary from sitcom-level mugging to panderingly unspecific symbols for the problems of the world. None of which coalesces around the animal magnetism of Shyamalan casting himself as the writer who ends up writing said world-saving text, the sort of catatonic egotism that can only be worsened by Shyamalan’s inability to even sell himself in the role.

Or the barbaric and truly bizarre film critic bashing which is petty until it becomes so garishly evil it almost seems like Shyamalan is making fun of himself for making fun of movie critics. Nothing beats making fun of critics who take your movies to task for being badly written, and then having the perverse nerve to make the critic-bashing scene an example of patented awful writing worse than anything any critic had yet made fun of. At this point, you are just being utilitarian, giving us writers bellows to stoke the fire. I do not suppose Shyamalan intended to make fun of himself this way, but we writers have to defend ourselves from the coma-inducing depths of the dialogue on display here. Self-preservation is a human instinct after all.

The most tectonically difficult part, however, may be watching Giamatti do all he can to make heads or tails of the dialogue he has been given, stuttering and wheezing through a stereotype and trying so desperately to make it human that it hurts. Surrounded by Shyamalan’s volcanically incompetent filmmaking, no one could succeed though.

Which brings us to the nail in the coffin: this pudgy, aloof, riddled film is a concrete slab of anti-style. Throughout the entire film, not one shot does anything that remotely approximates “selling” a scene, and in most cases, they deliberately work against the film. I for one do not know what is going on in Shyamalan’s mind filed under the nerve cluster known as “framing”, but Lady in the Water is a colossally poorly framed motion picture, and the obvious, and obviously purposeless, fetish for shots positioned behind someone in the foreground as they talk to someone in the background is only the tip of the iceberg.

No, it is not in truth “one of the worst movies” ever made in an objective, clinical sense. But it is unmistakably one of the worst movies ever to cost 75 million dollars for no apparent reason whatsoever, and that is its own form of badness. We should call a spade a spade and be honest that we are criticizing the film by the standard of a 75 million dollar Hollywood film and not by the standard of say, Robot Monster. But that doesn’t make the movie any less hard to watch, and it doesn’t excuse Shyamalan for taking 75 million dollars and subjecting the world to his 75 million dollar acid trip, a far more self-important, teasingly pretentious, egotistical production than Robot Monster ever dreamed of being. The 2000s sometimes seemed like a patch-work of middling ineptitude. Think middlebrow Salieri. Lady in the Water decides to go big or go home. It is a Wagnerian form of lashing, thrashing auteur-struck ineptitude, and an anti-pleasure from beginning to end.

Score:

So how good is it really?: 0.5/5 (pungently bad, with Shyamalan’s insistent, declamatory self-conviction taking the cake)

But how “good” is it?: 2.5/5 (difficult to tell; the preacher-face writing is a great boon and a putrescent turn-off, and the mileage will vary from person to person)

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