I’ve been a Shyamalan defender since his precipitous fall from grace in the late aughts, wherein critics and audiences turned against him after a slew of flops. From B-movie dross The Happening to big-budget disaster The Last Airbender, he was persona non grata in Hollywood for a few years. His collaboration with famous Will Smith’s family on After Earth was the final nail in the coffin for M. Night as blockbuster purveyor. Though it wasn’t any worse, and arguably much better, than his botching of beloved Avatar, that picture solidified the idea that Shyamalan wasn’t fit for a big canvas. His talents still laid in smaller-budgeted efforts, and the last several years have laid to rest any doubts that he would make a comeback. The Visit, Split, and Glass were a hat trick that proved the trickster hadn’t lost the pot after all. However, his newest film Old proves he may be destined to cycle in and out of favor forever, or at least until he reaches retirement.
This is a ham-fisted, poorly-acted, oddly written film that still entertains in fits and starts, and even compels on rare occasion, such as the many kills and peculiar moments when the characters (and audience) learn what it means for time to be moving rapidly. Whether that’s how certain diseases (cancer) or bodily effects (pregnancy) function in fast-forward, or when Shyamalan’s literal framing devices obscure the difficult task of aging these children from wee ones to young adults. The makeup work on display is undoubtedly impressive, tracking grown men and women from their late 30s and 40s into their twilight years, adding subtle wrinkles and crinkles to the edges and crevices of every actor’s face until they’re no longer middle-aged. M. Night slightly alters their complexion or their pallor, such as the vain supermodel (Abby Lee) unable to care for anything but her own waning looks. Her perfect sun-and-tanning-bed tan quickly turns an unsightly, sun-burnt brown. Thematically, Shyamalan is working overtime to instill in his characters, and us, the fear of aging, be it the dissolution of beauty when we age out of youth, or fears regarding mental health, physical health, and the toll of childbirth, he’s trying to tackle it all and often coming up short. Dialogue is often characters reminding us for the third or fourth time what they do for a living, or in one hysterical case, reminding us of their name for the third or fourth time. Shyamalan has written beautiful monologues for the likes of Bruce Willis, Joaquin Phoenix, Mel Gibson, and Haley Joel Osment. Here, all of that talent goes out the window.
Though much of the supporting cast isn’t up to the task of fleshing out these folks, the multi-talented Alex Wolff (Pig) and Thomasin McKenzie are best in show, with Rufus Sewell giving good as a wealthy, prejudiced doctor, at least until the script asks him to rage off the deep end. M. Night makes the big mistake of foisting a big finale on two unrecognizable (and not very talented) forty-something actors instead of keeping his young stars (Wolff, McKenzie) around to do what they do best. The film’s biggest sin is spending so much time on “developing” these characters without an ounce of audience empathy to show for it. We simply don’t care about these people, including the dysfunctional couple (Vicky Krieps, Gael Garcia Bernal) reeling from disease and impending divorce, and so spending two hours on a beach with them isn’t a good time at all, no matter the occasionally cool time tricks, makeup work, or ambitious ending. This is Shyamalan’s worst film since The Last Airbender.
P.S. It’s also not scary.