A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.
January 11, 2002 11:05am EST
Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) is sitting on the beach pondering the mysteries of life after losing his surfing buddy to a tsunami when he finds a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel Straitjacket buried in the sand. The book by a mythical Kerouac-type author who teaches at Stanford University profoundly influences Shaun who in turn decides he will become a writer. But Shaun's dreams of attending Stanford and studying under the guidance of his new mentor get squashed when a scatterbrained guidance counselor sends the wrong transcripts to the university. With the help of his peace-loving girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and his junkie brother Lance (Jack Black) the trio sets off to Stanford to convince school officials to reconsider his application before the deadline the following day. After a series of catastrophes Shaun becomes convinced that his dysfunctional family is conspiring to keep him in Orange County.
Colin Hanks (Get Over It not to mention Tom Hank's son) is the film's protagonist Shaun Brumder. He and his on-screen sweetheart played by Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day not to mention Sissy Spacek's daughter) bring quality to a good script suffering from shaky direction. The two interact quite naturally and make a pretty sweet couple. Jack Black (Shallow Hal) is hysterical and not just when he is standing around half-naked and dirty. Some of the funniest scenes are when Black's character Lance tries to be serious and stoned at the same time. Catherine O'Hara (Best in Show) plays Shaun's boozy mother without going over the top and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) is equally convincing as his rich father now married to someone half his age. There are several notable cameo appearances from actors including Lily Tomlin Ben Stiller Kevin Kline and Chevy Chase but they do not bring anything unique to their performances.
Orange County is directed by Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) who more recently directed episodes of teen TV series Freaks and Geeks Undeclared and Grosse Pointe--and it shows. While the script is hilarious and the acting above par the pacing is a bit uneven. The film jumps from really gross shots of Black prancing around in his skanky underpants to sentimentalized family issues that are a little too real to be funny. Then we are subject to scenes of Shaun's wheelchair-bound stepfather rolling out onto the street and getting hit by a car being the target of falling objects or crying out in pain because no one remembers to give him his medication. When did the blatant neglect of invalids become funny? Unfortunately these elements did not come together very well. Of course Kasdan does not resist the temptation of subjecting us to a dreaded college frat party scene involving flaky teenage girls and pompous college boys that with the help of Monica Keena (Undeclared) almost felt like a sitcom.