As vacation time nears, it is safe to say that no matter how rotten things get on the big screen during the rest of the summer, the worst of it is over. Hollywood cannot pollute the ozone with anything more idiotic, contrived, amateurish or sub-mental than Lady in the Water. This piece of pretentious, paralyzing twaddle is the latest in a series of head-scratchers by the incompetent, self-delusional M. Night Shyamalan. He’s the writer, producer and director, and terrible at all three, but if that isn’t bad enough, this time he has even gone one further and cast himself in one of the roles. I am here to tell you he is about as camera-ready as the corpse that Tommy Lee Jones dragged across the cactus in Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In a war of wits, brains, imagination and talent, Mr. Shyamalan would be defenseless.
Lady in the Water is described by Mr. Shyamalan as a “bedtime story” he told to his kids. Do not even think of repeating it to yours unless you plan to turn them into runaways, orphans or worse. No sane person could do justice to the plot, since the plot is as comprehensible as the ukulele of Tiny Tim and the voice of Tom Waits, but it goes something like this: A strange apartment building called the Cove stands in the middle of what looks like a jungle in Tanganyika, but is really Philadelphia.
The super of this U-shaped, five-story, 57-unit junkyard is a creep with Tourette’s syndrome named Cleveland Heep, played by Paul Giamatti, who ticks and stutters his way through a battery of mannerisms in a nerdy performance that is more annoying and affected than usual, which is saying a lot. Mr. Heep is always finding flotsam in the drain, and there is something wrong with the swimming pool. The water is slimy and at the bottom there’s a secret world inhabited by a weird woman the color of kindergarten paste called a “narf.” The narf, named Story and played by director Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, climbs out of the water naked and sleeps on Mr. Heep’s sofa. She’s a spirit who is trying to get back to the mythological Blue World at the bottom of the ocean on the wings of a giant eagle called the Great Eatlon, but she’s in danger of being clawed to death by vicious green carnivores called “scrunts” who look like warthogs covered with sea grass. The scrunts have poison claws; three scratches and you die. The only things that can save a narf are the “Tartutics,” who live in the trees of Philadelphia and look like Margaret Hamilton’s flying monkeys from Oz.
All of this may be going on right now, says Mr. Shyamalan, in your own backyard. He needs a room with a view, with bars on the windows and no sharp objects.
Meanwhile, the super summons the tenants in the Cove to act as human vessels and protect Story from the hairy scrunts until the Great Eatlon arrives and flies her back to the world she came from. This ecosystem includes Freddy Rodríguez as a lopsided weight lifter who only works on one side of his body; Mary Beth Hurt as an old woman who collects animals; Bill Irwin as a stoop-shouldered recluse who hides in his television set; Jeffrey Wright as part of a father-son combo that does crossword puzzles; Cindy Cheung as a Korean college girl whose mother knows the bedtime story about the lady in the water but only reveals one clue at a time to spread the movie to a length of just under two hours of tedium; and Bob Balaban as a movie critic who has seen so many horror films he can predict the endings (just as every movie critic I know can predict the ending of every movie by M. Night Shyamalan).
The tenants take on the roles of the ancient characters in the Blue World and act as symbolists who can read clouds, and guilds who can solve the problems of the universe with their hands, communicating the clues to the spirit world on cell phones. Mr. Shyamalan plays the most boring one of all and, to his credit, gives himself the dullest dialogue. Alas, the solution to all the ancient puzzles of the spirit world is reserved for the crossword-puzzle child, who finds the answers to the plagues against mankind on a box of Cheerios!
Before Big Bird flies in like a 747, Story escapes the carnivorous scrunts, who eat the cynical movie critic instead. Therein lies another of Mr. Shyamalan’s secret fantasies—inspired, for obvious reasons, by his reviews. I was sorry to see the critic end up like one of the tourists in Jurassic Park, because he speaks the only line in the movie that makes one lick of sense: “There is no originality left in the world. That’s a sad fact I’ve learned to live with.”
I like whimsy, fantasy and artistic license as much as the next guy trying to get in touch with his inner 6-year-old child, but to succeed, even a fairy tale must be believable. This movie is more about arrogance than anything else. A whole book has just been published about Mr. Shyamalan’s reckless budget, myopic vision and refusal to throw in the towel, after at least six Walt Disney executives flew to Philadelphia to meet with him before admitting they didn’t understand the script. Only the accountants will ever know if they were prophets or fools, but in my opinion, when Disney turns you down on the basis of incoherence, you know it’s time for a reality check. Who knew there were that many smart producers at Disney?
With so many movies about sex and gloom crowding marquees, Heading South is one of the more controversial. Some people are fascinated by French director Laurent Cantet’s exploration of money and class differences between sophisticated white female tourists in the crime-ridden political turmoil of Haiti in the 1970’s and the black native boy toys they sexually exploit to satisfy their lust. Others consider the film overrated and tedious. One thing is clear: Charlotte Rampling gives another prize-worthy performance as Ellen, an alluring, unmarried, 55-year-old French literature professor at Wellesley who has spent the last six summers vacationing at a seaside Haitian hotel where dirt-poor men congregate, looking for women to lavish them with money and gifts in exchange for physical pleasure.
This year, two of the sex tourists compete for the sexual attentions of the same 18-year-old Adonis, whose flashy new clothes endanger his life with the murderous thug regime of the diabolical Haitian dictator, “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Four monologues are addressed to the camera by the hard-boiled Ellen, who has made peace with her decision to pay for sex in middle age; Brenda (Karen Young), a naïve, Valium-popping Southerner from Savannah with a hidden mean-spirited and masochistic streak; Sue (Louise Portal), a level-headed French-Canadian who is earthy and joyous and determined to make sex fun at any expense; and Albert (Lys Ambroise), the courtly headwaiter who loathes Americans and speaks harsh truths straight from the heart about the poison they spread like butter on a croissant. Legba (Ménothy Cesar, miscast and anything but an Adonis) is the sensual object of the women’s competitive acts of revenge and betrayal—a boy who is out to better himself in the poverty of Haiti, bouncing from bed to bed, one step ahead of the dreaded, machete-carrying Ton Ton Macoutes.
The women’s world holds a mirror to the cold economic calculations of the resort’s amoral gigolos, trading tips and gossip on their days off. But director Cantet has no interest in stigmatizing either the women or their black conquests. His focus is on rethinking the political economy of sex, society and prostitution in a global market where every emotion has a trade value. The film is too slow for my taste, but for perfectly formed characters and authentic human conflict, Heading South is beautifully written, carefully photographed and eventually devastating.