Hollywood Mysteries: M Night Shyamalan (Part II: The Fall)

(If you missed Part I: The Rise, it’s here.)

In the summer of 2004, M Night Shyamalan was the hottest Director in the World. His name was selling tickets to the extent where the promo poster for that summer’s “The Village” has essentially NOTHING on it except his name. “M Night Shyamalan’s The Village”, some wooden planks, a stripe of paint. In those days, that was all his movies would need. It opened with a $50 million dollar weekend.

A funny thing happened though.

It wasn’t any good.

It scored a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, and fans have given it an underwhelming 6.5/10 over the years on IMDB. I mean, it wasn’t horrible, or really that bad… It just wasn’t any good. There was nothing to really like that much about it. It was… “meh”. In fairness, I haven’t watched it since I saw it in theatres, but was does that say to you?

“The Village” tells the story of an isolated village that lives encircled by a forest seemingly inhabited by vicious creatures… potentially Werewolves, or some such. The village and its inhabitants are straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time. Fetching water, wearing robes, using outhouses, etc etc. The central drive of the plot is that certain young members of the village want to brave the forests and break their isolation in order to connect to the greater world beyond. This is resisted by the village Elders, and all the while the “Creatures” lurk and loom and threaten.

“The Village” sports an outstanding cast. Joaquin Phoenix again, Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, and Bryce Dallas Howard – who really shone through in her first role, in spite of the lackluster material. It has a decent enough general premise. And of course, it was written and directed by America’s auteur himself. So, what went wrong?

Well. Mainly, it was the twist. Remember the analogy I used in Part I about Shyamalan’s twist endings as an Olympic diving competition? Well, this diver gets up and botches their dive to shit and then faceplants on the surface of the water as the crowd groans out “Ohhhh” and the judges hold up like 1s and 2s…. I mean, a) You can see it coming for miles b) It sucks.

I vaguely remember coming out of this movie as a Shyamalan apologist. Similar to my reaction to “The Phantom Menace”, I just couldn’t believe that it sucked, and thus I made a lot of rationalizations and excuses and passed it off as “Its not that bad”. One of the big excuses I made was it was saddled with the attempted twist. Shyamalan felt locked into trying that, so he was forcing it in. Now that audiences were on to it, it just wasn’t working anymore. He was still a great director. He just had a “Less than stellar” movie. Find me a director without a less than stellar movie on their filmography and I’ll show you a director with a real short filmography. Right? Plus, even if this movie was a “C”, that made M Night’s grades through his first four films A++, A, A-, C. It’s a hell of an average.

And then came “The Lady in the Water”.

(Sad, slow, grimacing head shake)

I was excited for “The Lady in the Water”, I really was. Given the strength of his first three films, it was easy to look past “The Village”. It was also reported early on that he was abandoning the “Twist Ending” concept. Which was a relief, I knew that it would liberate the movie. Plus it was going to star Paul Giamatti, who is phenomenal in everything, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who was one of the bright spots of “The Village”. The high concept I was hearing sounded strange, but hey, maybe it would be original and unique in a good way.

Oh, it was “Original and Unique” alright. But not in a good way. Not in a good way at all.

In “The Lady in the Water”, M Night Shyamalan creates his own mythology, populated by creatures with made up names like “Narfs” and “Scrunts”. The human characters are all ridiculous caricatures, each with some sort of almost comically notable trait – a stutterer, a one armed weight lifter (not an amputee, mind you, a guy with one hugely muscled arm and one regular arm), a bunch of stoners, a writer who can’t write, that sort of thing. As the story unfolds, it’s explained that each of the residents of this apartment complex (where Bryce D.H. is found in the pool) have a role to play in saving her.

Below is an excerpt from “The Lady in the Water”‘s Wikipedia page, under the “Plot” section.

“The Tartutic—an invincible simian trio that serve as the Blue World’s peacekeepers—have forbidden that Story be attacked while returning home. The Scrunt nonetheless does just that, as Story is destined to be a great leader as well. To return safely, she will now need the help of a Symbolist, Guardian, Guild, and Healer. Story believes Heep to be her Guardian; Heep asks Farber, a West Coast émigré turned film critic, to help him figure out the others’ identities. Working off movie tropes, Farber misadvises Heep, leading him to a flawed conclusion that a logophile named Dury is the Symbolist, a group of misfit ‘tokers’ are the Guild, and a woman who cares for stray animals named Bell is the Healer.”

What. The. Fuck?

It’s as silly and confusing as it sounds. Atop of which, nearly the entire freaking movie is exposition. Seeing as Shaymalan’s trying to invent new words, invent a mythology that none of us have heard of, and then explain the importance and role of the movie’s characters to the story in this newly introduced mythology, that’s a lot of freaking explaining to do. Which I suppose is good, since the basic plot boils otherwise boils down to “how do we get this chick out of the pool?” Except when everything you’re explaining is stupid even after your audience “understands” it.

Finally, in a legendary example of narcissism, M Night – who has always had a role in his own films – casts himself as a major character. Not only does he have a sizeable role, the role is that of a writer who is going to write the most important thing ever written, and thereby save the entire world. I shit you not. It is nearly impossible to watch without thinking, is this what this guy thinks of himself now?

Critics ripped into this movie to the extent that I waited for it to hit dvd even though I was anticipating it. Once I saw it for myself, it was undeniable. It’s one of the worst movies ever made. I suppose, if I could divorce myself from the bitter disappointment that this movie is part of the wreckage that was once a promising film career, it could be watched as a comedy in a “So ridiculous it’s fun” kind of way, a la “Catwoman”.   

Compounding the problems with the movie itself, M Night picked the wrong time to let a journalist follow him around and write a book. “The Man Who Heard Voices” frankly documents how Disney passed on this movie and Shyamalan pushed it through Warner Brothers on the strength of his name. It’s honestly an astonishing read. Even though it’s coming from a pace of great admiration for M Night, it totally paints a picture of an artist that can’t see the forest through the trees.

Just like that, things had crumbled for the future Hall of Famer. His grades in my book now read A++, A, A-, C, F-. The media perception of him had turned from wunderkind to oaf. A preening, vain oaf at that. It couldn’t get any worse. Or could he?

You can read the final installment – Part III: Still Falling, here!

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6 thoughts on “Hollywood Mysteries: M Night Shyamalan (Part II: The Fall)

  1. Ok…so its taken me a while to formulate a response to your disembowelment of one of my favorite movies…I know it was not popular and in some ways I get it…but on the other hand here’s why I loved it : it is, indeed, a goofy fairytale with a somwhat mad magazine cast of characters…but in an entertainemnt world that just keeps rehashing the same old crap..this was a fun new myth. Speaking as someone who is intimately acuainted with all the crappy “fairy godmother” and “hapily ever after” plot line this was gritty and new. And seriously…the guy with one strong arm is preposterously entertaining. Its a little bit monty python and a little bit lord of the rings. How can you hate on that?

    • [Michael Corleone] Deb. You’re my sister, and I love you. But never take sides with M Night Shaymalan again. [/Michael Corleone]

      Sorry, had to lay down some Godfather. All this talk of Lady in the Water and Catwoman was giving me a bad taste in my mouth.

      If ever a movie deserved to be disembowled… It’s “Lady in the Water”. I know you and Rich like it. Who knows… Maybe the moon was just right or something. But it’s not just me. Not only was it a critical disaster (24% on Rotten Tomatoes) it failed to recoup it’s budget at the box office. Disney let their collaboration with M. Night end over this. They thought the script sucked that much.

      And I appreciate originality. I really do. You’re right, Hollywood needs way more of it. But just because a diver attempts a dive with a high degree of difficulty, it doesn’t mean the judges are required to give him/her a good score when they faceplant.

      And that’s what “Lady” is. An utter faceplant.

      • Oh. And I just looked. It was nominated for four Razzies, including Worst Picture. It won two of them, Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor. Both for you know who.

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