M. Night Shyamalan's seventh feature flouts moviemaking conventions with childish glee, telling rather than showing, subordinating narrative to weird, pointless angles and compositions, and showcasing the very cliches inveighed against by the tale's villain, snotty critic Mr. Farber. All of which would be fine if the magic justified the malarkey: But it doesn't.
Stuttering sad-sack Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) was once a doctor, but tragedy reduced him to managing The Cove, a shabby Philadelphia apartment complex inhabited by a studiously artificial cross-section of society. There's trendy college student/goodtime girl Cindy Cheung (Young-Soon Choi) who lives with her old-country mother; single father Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright); silent Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin); a pack of stoners clustered around a pontificating, goateed blowhard (Jared Harris); weirdo Reggie (Six Feet Under's Freddie Rodriguez) who's bulking up one side his body as an "experiment"; childish slacker Vick (Shyamalan) and his down-to-earth sister (Sarita Choudhury); and embittered, know-it-all critic Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban). The complex has a swimming pool that's off-limits after dark, but Heep hears splashing at night and eventually catches the culprit — a pale, naked, otherworldly young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard, resolutely of this world) portentously named Story. Story, it ensues, is a "narf" (an infelicitous Shyamalanism for a water nymph), and Heep drafts Cindy into teasing out her mom's memories of the folktales she heard as a child. Narfs, they learn, come from the "Blue World," and Story was sent to inspire the "Vessel," a person destined to enlighten others. She needs the help of a healer, a symbolist, a guild and a guardian to fulfill her mission, and is in terrible danger from the snarling Scrunt, a sort of grass-covered hellhound hiding just outside. Without picking strand by strand through Shyamalan's plot — which owes as much to video games as bedtime stories — suffice it to say that Story's helpers all live at the Cove, but the only one Heep correctly identifies first time out is the Vessel: Vick. And it surely goes without saying that Farber, with his vast knowledge of narrative cliches, gets everything wrong.
Shyamalan's reputation rests on twist endings, but in his heart of hearts — the one he wears on his sleeve — he imagines himself a modern-day mythmaker, a shaman of the seventh art. Shyamalan huffed out of Disney, the studio that gambled on THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) when he was nobody, because executives dared express carefully phrased reservations about his new screenplay. And despite a precisely crafted, too-enlightened-for-philistines persona, he's driven to snipe at critics because they dare suggest that his post-SIXTH SENSE features have been an exercise in diminishing returns. Shyamalan's willful determination to play around with narrative and make sure everyone knows what he's doing is evident from the start — an animated sequence using faux petroglyphs lays out the history of the narfs and men — and the Cove boasts more word-slingers than a writers' colony. Heep keeps a diary, the stoners dissect and coin catchphrases, Dury does crossword puzzles, his son spins fanciful stories, Mrs. Cheung and Cindy filter myth through their language, and Vick wrestles with deep thoughts about politics and society and everything. The result is a soggy swamp of nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyahing, its only grace notes are Giamatti's fine, nuanced performance as Heep and Christopher Doyle's handsome cinematography.
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- Released: 2006
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: M. Night Shyamalan's seventh feature flouts moviemaking conventions with childish glee, telling rather than showing, subordinating narrative to weird, pointless angles and compositions, and showcasing the very cliches inveighed against by the tale's villai… (more)