Did you think that what was missing from Amélie was a frank discussion of merman genitals? When you watch videos of Koko the gorilla conversing in sign language, do you dream of her finding a human boyfriend with which to copiously fornicate? If so, please stop reading this review, Guillermo del Toro, you’re not going to like it much. The Shape of Water is the latest awards season darling that seems like an elaborate joke. Described as a “gothic fairy tale,” the film is shockingly unimaginative in areas not specific to fish/woman copulation.
The impossibly talented, criminally too-infrequently cast Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman tasked with mopping up a clandestine government headquarters that examines weird shit in the pursuit of kicking commie butt. Set at the precise instant Soviets put missiles between Cuba and crisis, dickhead Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) tortures an amphibian man (Doug Jones) for science. This upsets Elisa, who formed a bond with the barely communicative merperson when he ate her hard-boiled egg.
Despite admonitions from her work wife, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her sad-sack next-door gay BFF, Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa aims to spring Froggy McDude. Unbeknownst to her, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) has similar designs on an aquatic jailbreak. The remainder of the movie contains an unintentionally hilarious dance number, zero twists and/or turns and several woman-on-flounder slip-n-slides.
The Shape of Water is not relentlessly unpleasant, del Toro is too talented a filmmaker for that. It is, however, palpably gross and bad. It is gross in obvious, out-of-place ways, like when Shannon splooshes pus from a formerly severed finger. But it is also bad in more meaningful ways, like the number of times Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer says some variation of “Oh lawd!” and complains about her tired feet. Apparently, in order to play something other than a “sassy, overworked employee,” the captivating Ms. Spencer will need multiple Academy Awards. Had del Toro made a film worthy of half the acclaim The Shape of Water is getting, Spencer would have been the lead, and the whole thing would have been a meditation on the forced invisibility of black women and their unsated desires.
Instead, the desires at play are simplistic, stupid and flat-out icky. Featuring one of the weirdest, most non-sequitur shots of an exposed breast ever, del Toro packs the film with a confident sexuality the script does not earn. Nothing about Flippy McWaterbreather suggests an intellectual capacity above that of a poorly educated child. Indisputably belonging to an entirely different, if somewhat-related, species, at no point does the bond between he and Elisa rise above his sort-of-understanding what she’s saying. Believing this to be a heartfelt, star-crossed, love-laden fairy tale is to embrace a consummated bond that is presented no differently than that of a sad human and her clever pet.
Luminously shot, delightfully scored and cloyingly convinced of its own cutesiness, as when Elisa and Giles do a grating soft-shoe dance while couch-bound, The Shape of Water is boring, uninspired and undeserving of the gallons of praise in which it currently splashes.
Grade = C-