Whatever you may have to say about M. Night Shyamalan, you have to give him credit for doing things differently than most directors with a couple Hollywood blockbuster under their belts. After exploring ghosts, superheroes, aliens and 18th Century villagers, he delves further into the world of fantasy, but instead of following routes laid down by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, he has created an original fairy tale that takes place in our own world. To say that it’s a departure would be an understatement.
At the center of the story is Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heap, a sad middle-aged man who gave up on a medical career after a tragic incident to work as the put-upon super at The Cove. He takes his surroundings in stride, having become accustomed to dealing with the complex’s eccentric residents on a daily basis. The strangest of these is Freddy Rodriguez’s Reggie, who has only been working out on one side of his body to make himself look like a circus freak, there’s the chain-smoking philosophers who talk nonsense all day, and the stern Mr. Leeds who sits at home watching war films.
When Cleveland stumbles and falls into the pool while investigating strange goings-on, he wakes up back in his apartment with a beautiful half-naked girl sitting next to him. She calls herself Story and says she’s a “narf” on a special assignment, and oddly, Cleveland’s pronounced stutter vanishes whenever he’s around her. Cleveland consults with Korean co-ed Young-Sun Choi and her aging mother, who see similarities to a Korean fable, and tries to find out how to help Story fulfill her mission. Story is far more than a sea nymph, at The Cove to help mankind by finding a writer who will have a lasting impact on a future leader. It’s pretty amusing that said writer is played by Night himself. Standing in their way is a horrifying wolven beast called a Scrunt with a grass-like pelt that allows it to hide in the grass, and it’s only mission is to kill Story before she fulfills said mission.
This is a very strange movie, and it takes a good deal of patience and concentration to watch it slowly unfold as Cleveland puts together the pieces of the puzzle. All the talk of Scrunts, Madam Narfs and something called “The Tartutic,” makes it hard to keep a straight face while watching it, but that doesn’t make the creatures any less horrifying. In particular, the Scrunt is as fierce and deadly as any movie werewolf, offering more than a few genuine scares, but Shyamalan isn’t above keeping you so on edge by repeatedly scaring the bejeebies out of you, making you jump every time the sprinkler goes off. The other beasts, designed by “Crash” McCreery, the man behind the creatures in “Pirates: Dead Man’s Chest,” may look a bit silly, being modeled after real animals, but they look far better than similar CG creatures, maybe because they’re not.
At this point, me singing the praises of Paul Giamatti would be like telling someone the sky is blue. He’s obviously one of the more entertaining dramatic actors, and he brings just the right amount of humor to what is an emotionally rich character. Bryce Dallas Howard, who showed some impressive dramatic chops in “The Village,” Shyamalan’s last movie and her feature film debut, takes a back-seat to Giamatti, mainly because she doesn’t have nearly as many lines.
Still, it’s Bob Balaban who steals every scene as a know-it-all movie critic, who offers a running commentary to the story, announcing what part everyone should play in it. He offers some of the movie’s funniest moments, which will be enjoyed by anyone who has ever questioned the motive of critics. Freddy Rodriguez’s Reggie may be one of the strangest characters ever seen in a movie, which makes you wish there were more of him.
The rest of the cast is barely mediocre, even great character actors like Jeffrey Wright and Jared Harris, who have been so much better in other movies. Shyamalan himself plays a larger part here than in past movies. To some, his role may seem like the height of ego, but it’s more bothersome because his scenes take you out of the movie. Sarita Choudhury (“Mississippi Masala”) offers a couple laughs as his nagging sister, but that humor often feels forced as she plays it up with an exaggerated voice. Likewise, Cindy Cheung, wearing outlandish outfits and speaking in a sillier broken English accent, plays Young-Soon as the type of Asian stereotype that is going to be more offensive than funny to some.
The real trick is to integrate all these bizarre characters into the dark fairy tale, but it leads to a climactic third act where they join together to get Story to something called a “Great Eatlon” that will take her back to the sea. Night is far subtler with his twists this time around, but by that time, you’ve become so absorbed into the lives of these people that you really hope they’ll succeed.
More than anything else, there’s a meaningful message that everyone has a role to fulfill in life, which allows for a number of potent emotional and spiritual moments. The only thing missing really is a suitable epilogue to tell us what happens to the characters next; even a text epilogue would have sufficed.
Regardless of these negligible issues, the movie is quite gorgeous thanks to Night’s secret weapon, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who makes every scene look amazing by finding interesting ways of shooting them. Seriously, if real life looked as good as Doyle makes it look here, I’d be quite happy living in a world of Narfs and Scrunts.