Hawkins’ performance breathes life into ‘Shape of Water’

For a movie leading the way at this year’s Oscars with 13 nominations, “The Shape of Water” is quite average. Maybe even overrated. It’s packaged as an adult fairy tale, but director Guillermo del Toro’s problem is that adults don’t normally enjoy swallowing this much sugary sweetness in a two-hour sitting. In fact, other than an unnecessary cat murder, virtually nothing bad happens and this tall tale ends on such a predictable note that it’s borderline insulting.

Sure, del Toro’s screenplay (co-written with Vanessa Taylor) has great intentions. Equality, prejudice and even the working conditions for women in the 1960s are all touched on in “The Shape of Water.” The main crux of the story is love, even if it’s between a mute woman and a half-amphibian-half-man creature discovered in an Amazonian river. Unfortunately, every character is one-note and there feels like little point to all of it.

That mute woman is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a sanitary worker at a secret government lab with the worst security of all time. She mops floors and cleans toilets with her pal, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a motor mouth who watches out for the seemingly helpless Elisa.

Elisa’s mundane life is interrupted when super evil G-man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings the creature to the lab. For whatever reason, Elisa is immediately drawn to it and begins to hang out with him, giving him food and spinning vinyl for him on her lunch breaks.

Eventually, Elisa finds out that her creature crush is going to be killed and dissected so she enlists her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), to help her break him out of jail. Naturally, they succeed in doing this, but only because the facility has cameras in every nook and cranny other than the room the Amazon monster is in. Go figure.

Del Toro and company nail several stereotypes. Spencer’s Zelda is reduced to a sassy African American who complains about her husband, Shannon’s government agent is overly menacing and sexist, and they tossed in a foul mouthed General (Nick Searcy) without an ounce of compassion for good measure. Even Jenkins, who does so much with so little, feels out of place and the gay bigotry that he experiences seems only present to show that yes, indeed, many people were and still are awful.

Even though she never utters a word, Jenkins does command the screen and this one of the more powerful roles to come around in a long time. She is the saving grace of “The Shape of Water” and there are a handful of scenes where her use of sign language is absolutely stunning.

Normally, you can count on the monster makeup to be top notch in every del Toro movie. The creature here is almost identical to Abe Sapien from del Toro’s “Hellboy” series. Yes, each of these characters is played by del Toro regular Doug Jones, but should that matter when he’s hidden under layers upon layers of make up? The creature has that signature del Toro appearance, but doesn’t look or seem nearly as original as anything from the gorgeous and highly superior “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

“The Shape of Water” is a good, not great fairy tale. The set design, score and costuming is impeccable and perfect for the era, but so much seems forced that it detracts from the overall message. Presumably, “The Shape of Water” wants to show how marginalized particular people were (and still are), but his characters are completely without depth and it lessens the impact of the entire story.