M. Narcissus Shyamalan

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In the absence of a neurological disorder, a filmmaker who boasts about hearing voices is either scamming the congregation or has come to believe that the universe revolves around him. Given the twerpy messianism of Lady in the Water, it’s pretty clear that M. Night Shyamalan regards himself as a sacred vessel. His new movie is like Splash reworked by a grandiose Sunday-school teacher. It centers on a traumatized apartment-complex superintendent called Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), who finds himself the caretaker of a “narf” (Bryce Dallas Howard), a quasi-mermaid from an ancient water realm (the “blue world”) dispatched to impart a message to a writer, played by Shyamalan. The message is to keep writing, because the book he’s struggling to finish will inspire a child who will one day transform the world. I’m not spoiling anything, since the mythos is laid out in a solemn prologue (once, narfs and man were linked, but man became greedy, etc.), and the plot turns on what happens after the narf—her name is Story—fulfills her mission. See, hellhounds called scrunts know that Story is not a run-of-the-mill narf but a madame narf around whom other narfs will … do whatever it is that narfs do. Protecting Story from a rogue scrunt will take a village, or at least a Philadelphia apartment complex.

Those of us who reflexively champion impassioned auteurs against corporate suits have cause to rethink our position in this case. Michael Bamberger’s unintentionally hilarious new book, The Man Who Heard Voices, recounts how Shyamalan left Disney after his patron, studio president Nina Jacobson, didn’t offer sufficient support. She wasn’t home to receive a hand-delivered script (she was coming back from a birthday party with her young son), and then, after reading it, expressed ever-so-gentle reservations about this gift from on high. The film would still have been green-lit—but for Night that light would never have been green enough. The son of hard-to-please doctors, Shyamalan demands unconditional love or his creative flow will be dammed.

None of this drama-queen stuff would matter if it weren’t so evident in the work itself—in the narcissistic conflation of spiritual doubt and Shyamalan doubt. There’s no place for skepticism in Lady in the Water—and no dramatic tension, either. Every member of the apartment-complex surrogate family jumps right onboard the narf express, instantly committed to beating back scrunts with the power of their faith. (Now, these people would stay home to receive an M. Night Shyamalan script.) In Signs, the director spelled out the idea that nonbelievers would be unable to protect their children from demonic saucer-men. In this, his religious allegory for the whole family, the token doubter is a pale little prisspot of a film critic (Bob Balaban), whose arrogant certainty puts the life of our angel at risk. Hoo boy, does the critic get his comeuppance: Dam Shyamalan and be damned.

With a trim beard and spectacles, Giamatti gives a fine, nuanced performance, his Heep emerging only gradually from his stupor. Giamatti doesn’t hit a false note—but maybe a movie like this needed an actor more willing to go out on a limb, even to the point of looking foolish. He mirrors his director, though. What’s odd about Lady in the Water is that for all Shyamalan’s histrionics, he’s overcontrolled. His emotions might be stirred, but ours aren’t; he’s good only at alienation or flat-out horror-movie horror—things that go “Boo!” (He’s like any B-director—he jacks up the volume when the beasties jump out at you.) The cinematographer, Chris Doyle, doesn’t swoon the way he does for Wong Kar Wai, but he nudges the compositions off-kilter and gives the film a warm palette, and James Newton Howard’s score lays on the lush romanticism. But the material isn’t lit from within. When Bryce Dallas Howard huddles semi-clothed in a shower, there’s little going on in her lovely, chiseled face—a face that was so evocative when she played a blind girl in The Village. Her beauty is meant to be masklike and otherworldly, but what we see is a beatific lump.

Along with many others, I was blown away by the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense. For two hours I’d snickered at the artiness of the compositions, at the way Bruce Willis’s character was so ludicrously alienated from the world that he had no spatial relationship with anyone but the freaky kid. And then: Kaboom! Talk about using a critic’s jadedness to pull the rug out from under him! Shyamalan was still a showman back then, before he began to fancy himself a shaman—or is that shyaman? Now he just writes dead people.

David Mamet’s play Edmond is an early work, lean and stark, from the days before his driving, purposefully stilted dialogue attracted legions of imitators—and before Mamet became something of a self-parodist. It’s the story of an Everyman fighting vainly and horrifically against his own dehumanization. It’s Mamet’s Woyzeck—but a Woyzeck for the early eighties, when the white American male was reeling from his loss of potency. Early on, lowly corporate drone Edmond—William H. Macy in the film—asserts his freedom by leaving his wife and heading out into the night. But this little white guy has no power in the urban jungle. He can’t afford the strippers and whores. And he’s preyed on by big, nasty African-Americans. He arms himself and lashes out, but violence brings him no peace. The ending, in which Edmond learns to live with his subjugation—musing, “When we fear something, I think we wish for it”—is a psychosexual stunner. The emphasis is not on stomping others in a world in which every interaction is a struggle for power (the Mamet meme). It’s on the tender mercy of surrender.

Edmond is reductionist, and since Mamet’s vision of life is vinegary to begin with, that’s some acrid reduction. There were walkouts at the screening I attended—people repelled by the racism, sexism, misogyny, and carnage. I was repelled, too. But on the movie’s own terms, it’s impressive. The director, Stuart Gordon, once ran Chicago’s Organic Theater before finding fame with the masterful mad-scientist splatter comedy Re-Animator, and you can taste his relish in staging each of Edmond’s (mostly emasculating) encounters with actors like Joe Mantegna (chummy racist philosopher), Mena Suvari (brass-tacks prostitute), Lionel Mark Smith (raffish pimp turned icy mugger), and Bokeem Woodbine (demanding cellmate). Julia Stiles can’t make sense of the waitress who brings Edmond home—maybe she’s too realistic an actress, or maybe such a confused innocent is outside Mamet’s range. More likely it’s that Macy’s Edmond—blood-spattered, grandiose, his ears standing out from his white and slightly wattled face—is a scary dude even by the standards of Mamet Land. Depressing, disgusting, and dated, Edmond is worth braving to experience America’s best-known serious playwright at his most gruesomely undiluted.

The animated feature Monster House might one day become an amusement-park ride—it’s all about synergy, you know—but it couldn’t be much more fun than in its present incarnation. Directed by Gil Kenan, it’s a variation on Gothic horror pictures in which ramshackle houses have fiendish holds over helpless inhabitants. Here, a Persian rug like a tongue rolls out and curls around unwary passersby, while the lawn sucks down tricycles, basketballs, etc. The movie might be scary for small kids—but good scary, with goose-bump-inducing frames, witty repartee, and three resourceful kid protagonists (a cute geek, a chubster, and a smart preppy girl) who risk their hides to get to the bottom (the skeletal foundation) of the pissed-off manse before it gobbles all the trick-or-treaters down. Among the peerless vocal talents are Maggie Gyllenhaal as a refreshingly mean teen babysitter, and Steve Buscemi as nasty, spindly old Nebbercracker, among the most touchingly complex house-husbands I’ve ever seen.

Don’t Look Now
Lady in the Water star Paul Giamatti on the pleasures of fearing the bogeyman.

Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan in 1970, the director of Signs and Lady in the Water invented his middle name, “Night,” while studying film at NYU. He’s playfully embellished his biography ever since, including filming a hoax-documentary special, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, for the Sci Fi Channel to promote The Village. The hoax, picked up by the AP, the New York Post, and others, claimed that the director had been legally dead for a half-hour after drowning in a frozen pond—and thereafter communicated with supernatural spirits.

Lady in the Water
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Warner Bros. PG-13.

Monster House
Directed by Gil Kenan. Sony. PG.

Directed by Stuart Gordon. First Independent Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

M. Narcissus Shyamalan