There is no conventional rating scale that could do justice to this film. It is a terrible movie, but it is terrible in an interesting and often highly watchable way. There have been better films that I have enjoyed less. The C grade is not an indication of mediocrity; it is an average of the movie’s successes and failures.
Let’s start with the successes. First and most important is that M. Night Shyamalan is unquestionably a superb director with a brilliant understanding of how to use the camera to tell a story. Second is Paul Giamatti, who plays handyman/caretaker Cleveland Heep with sensitivity and conviction. Sarita Choudhury also brings a vibrant and lively spirit to the film.
But it is in a way the extraordinary ability and subtlety of those elements that undermine the film as a whole by providing a contrast to the stunningly self-indulgent claptrap they are attempting to serve.
Director Shyamalan makes the mistake of working from a fundamentally unworkable script by, who was that screenwriter again? Oh, yes, M. Night Shyamalan, who seems to be, as we say, working through some issues.
We see some of his favorite themes — the damaged doctor, the wise child, the characters stunned by devastating trauma, the spooky creatures lurking somewhere out there. But we also see what looks like petty payback. This is a story in which story-tellers are magically powerful while those who criticize them are half buffoon and half pompous but ineffectual know-it-all, and doomed to a uniquely awful fate. This is the movie equivalent of Barry Manilow wailing about how he writes the songs that make the whole world sing with an extra verse more than an hour long about how no one understands and appreciates him enough.
Though set in a dingy apartment complex outside of Philadelphia, this is a fairy tale. As the movie begins, we are told with simple line drawings of a time in which another race of beings called the Narf were in contact with humans. But then humans became greedy and wanted to own the land and the Narf could not communicate with them any more.
Heep (the names in this film make Pilgrim’s Progress looke subtle) discovers something, someone swimming in the pool at night. It is a narf (Bryce Dallas Howard from Shyamalan’s The Village). She has been called from her world to deliver a message to someone in the complex who is trying to write something. Her name is….Story.
Heed asks around to figure out which resident is in need of the message. It turns out there are several writers on the premises, including a book and film critic named Farber, perhaps named for legendary critic Manny Farber (Bob Balaban). But the Writer sought by Story because his writing will change the world is….none other than our very own story-teller, writer-director Shyamalan as Vick Ran, who has been stuck in the middle of writing a book about his ideas.
Does Story have a message for Vick? A story to tell him? No, it turns out one look from her is like a mega-dose of Ritalin; all of a sudden he is completely clear and focused and bangs that sucker out in a few hours.
The rest of the film is about getting Story back home. All Heed has to do is persuade one of the residents, a Korean woman, to tell him the bedtime story she heard from her mother, which has all of the details about every obstacle the Narf will face and every kind of help that is available to her.
The disparate residents of the complex may have been drawn there because they have exactly the talents she needs, but how to know who has what? Fortunately, no one wastes any time doubting Heed’s story. Unfortunately, instead they waste their time trying to sell this flimsy, self-serving mush.
Shyamalan promised that there would be no surprise twist ending this time. He is right. Although there are some good spooky moments and some surprisingly comic ones, you can tell where this one is going right from the start. But he is also wrong. The surprise twist is how far this is from what we know he can do. Shyamalan is a truly great story-teller. This is just a truly empty story.
Parents should know that this is a very intense film with a good deal of peril and suspense and some jump-out-at-you surprises and ominous portents. While most of the violence occurs off-screen, we do see graphic wounds. Characters smoke cigarettes and there is some social drinking. A strength of the movie is the way diverse characters live in a community of tolerance and lack of prejudice.
Families who see this movie should talk about the kinds of myths and other stories that transcend all cultures and the reason that stories — like movies — are important. Are you more like a healer, a symbol interpreter, a guardian, or part of a guild?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Village.