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The Shape of Water, a minority report

The Shape of Water dir. Guillermo del Toro (123 mins) Trailer Living Room® Theaters

"partly a code-scrambled fairy tale, partly a genetically modified monster movie, and altogether wonderful" (A.O. Scott, Review: 'The Shape of Water' Is Altogether Wonderful, The New York Times, November 30, 2017)

"a marvelous film"; "...perfectly calibrated. Its humor, its heart, and its horror all work in beautiful concert." (Richard Lawson, The Shape of Water: A Strange and Soaring Monster Love Story, Vanity Fair, September 3, 2017)

"a ravishing 60s-set romance, sweet, sad and sexy" (Xan Brooks, The Shape of Water review – Guillermo del Toro's fantasy has monster-sized heart, The Guardian, August 31, 2017)

Thirteen Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director, best actress, best supporting actress, and best supporting actor

I dissent. To be fair, Guillermo del Toro's romantic fairy tale cum cold war thrillercum homage to monster movies is not up my alley. It is a cartoon with a commendable moral, but a cartoon nonetheless. The storyline is thin and heavy on contrivance. Okay, it's art. It's all artifice and contrivance. But something has to draw us in. Maybe it is just me, but that did not happen.

It's not all bad by any means. The characters are well played. Sally Hawkins is first rate as the mute cleaner who works the night shift at a secret government lab and falls in love with a humanoid creature from the Amazon, where the natives worshipped him as a god. Though mute she can hear, allowing her a degree of entrance into the everyday world of most of us while maintaining an apartness. There is no illusion that we have privileged access to anything beyond what is suggested by her actions, expressions, the little tap dance she does as she walks down the hall to the door of her apartment building. At times the movie asks us to see her as vulnerable, as when she is confronted and menaced by Strickland (Michael Shannon), but really she is not. Rather hers is a strong character with a quiet, determined purpose, understated but undeniable, from which she will not be turned away. Hawkins drew me in to care about Elisa and fear that things might not turn out well in the end.

Octavia Spencer is great as Zelda, a strong, intelligent black woman with a mouth on her who takes the naïf white heroine under her wing in what has become something of a stock type. Strickland is an annoying cardboard cut-out villain who sports as his prop of choice a cattle prod that he employs with sadistic purpose. Shannon like Spencer is fine, but there is only so much the actors can do with the roles given them by the director and script.

The pie guy (Morgan Kelly) is a hokey caricature whose purpose I suppose is to provide for the portrayal of homophobia and racism in a scene that comes off as contrived and gratuitous. The general (Nick Searcy) is another cardboard stereotype, calling to mind George C. Scott's Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove but not remotely comparable.

It is not all bad. For Hawkins's performance alone this is a movie worth catching. The Russian agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose heart is in the right place is a sympathetic character. The Shape of Water is slickly produced. The song and dance numbers contribute nicely enough to the atmosphere of fantasy. The story moves along fairly well. It is okay as escape, on a par after its fashion with Atomic Blonde.

And today we have a breaking story from The Guardian alleging that The Shape of Water was "obviously derived" from a 1969 play by Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel (Sam Levin, Exclusive: playwright's estate says The Shape of Water used his work without credit, January 25, 2018). It seems there are a few parallels between The Shape of Water and Zindel's Let Me Hear You Whisper, "a play about a female janitor in a research laboratory who bonds with a captive dolphin and tries to rescue the creature." It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the atmosphere of hyper-moralism that pervades most everything these days.

I wondered if maybe my take on this one was just a predictably elitist reaction to a critically acclaimed popular movie up for all sorts of awards. As we walked out of the theater my friend said with no prompting from me, "I give it a C. Maybe a C minus." I felt better.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor revisions were made to flesh out the second and third paragraphs after this piece was originally published.

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