If I hadn’t seen Lady in the Water with Salma, I would have walked out. But since I didn’t walk out, the question is—when would I have given up hope? When Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) tells Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), “Thank you for letting me wear your beautiful shirt”? (When she could have stood to ask him for some pants, too?) When the writer (M. Night Shymalan) describes his current project as being his thoughts on “all the social problems”? (Could he maybe have named one? Poverty? Pollution?) When the crossword freak drops a meta dis on movie critics that results in the movie’s one likable, relatable character—a cantankerous movie critic played to perfection by Bob Balaban—getting eaten by a grass dog?
I think I wouldn’t have made it past the scene where M. Night finds out that through his masterwork, The Cookbook, he will exert a major influence on the world—posthumously. It’s bad enough that Night had to feature such an obvious Jesus figure. It’s worse that he had to play the Jesus figure himself. Claiming persecution is a rich move for a multihyphenate millionaire at any stage. Let’s call the celebrity’s persecution claim, be it Eminem’s “They try to shut me down on MTV” three albums into his career or Lindsey Lohan’s whining about tabloid rumors on her very first single, the jump-the-shark point of the fame trajectory. Such a claim indicates that the celebrity has officially reached critical mass and will soon become that black hole of fame, the has-been.
Besides, to paraphrase Salma, sometimes people hate a moviemaker because he makes bad movies. I can’t give a good plot summary of Lady in the Water because I’m not sure what happened. Story, a narf, lands in a pool and carves out a cave beneath it. Someone needs to see her to make something happen. Once she’s seen, she needs to leave, but she can’t do it without help. People help her. She leaves. Besides the narf and the grass dog, there’s a huge eagle, tree monkeys, and a bunch of quirky oddballs. It all goes down in an apartment complex that is simultaneously in Philadelphia and the deep forest. The movie reads like an eighties children’s-fantasy movie—The Never-Ending Story, say—only with adults. It probably would have worked better with children; it’s hard to buy that a bunch of adults would have nothing better to do with their day than help Spooky Chick fly the friendly skies. But even talented children couldn’t overcome all the self-aggrandizement Night commits to film. This and King Kong are competing for the title of worst movie I’ve seen this year—and, people, I just saw Gigli.