This post may contain SPOILERS.
The film Lady in the Water is set in and around a multicultural Philadelphia apartment building where a mythological healer, a guardian, an interpreter, and some kind of guild are living. They do not know what their roles are, but the narf from the building’s swimming pool needs their help. And since she is wearing his shirt and reading his diary entries, it’s the building superintendent’s job to find them. But he’s not very good at this. For one thing, he asks a film critic for help. (I know. Stupid.)
Living elsewhere in the building is a friendly but quiet writer working on a book that will change the world forever. He’s played by the film’s writer and director, M. Night Shyamalan.
Hanging around outside is a grassy, wolf-like creature that wants to bring harm to the narf. This is a scrunt. (M. Night Shyamalan apparently never used this term in a Google search.) Up in the trees, we’re told, is the Tartutic, a trio of evil monkey-like enforcers. And at the end of the film, three guys in monkey suits do indeed drop out of the trees. The scene in which this happens is very funny, but I do not think M. Night Shyamalan meant for it to be.
I’m not saying Lady in the Water is a terrible movie — certainly it’s not as bad as the preponderance of pans it has received might suggest. There’s a lot to admire here. Shyamalan’s almost preternatural facility as a director of action (and inaction) on the screen finds a really good match in ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s moody camera fu, which recalls, for me, his recent work on the interiors-heavy Dumplings and 2046. (If there’s a living D.P. who’s better at working out and exploiting the geometry of a particular set or location, I don’t know who it is.) And Paul Giamatti is just astoundingly good — as long as the film revolves around the hilariously named Cleveland Heep and his relationship with the lady from the water, a frustratingly muted Bryce Dallas Howard, it’s pretty much golden. Giamatti brings something that’s all too rare in supernatural stories — a smart, credulous protagonist who spends his time accepting and absorbing his predicament and figuring out how to handle it rather than moping around and whining about how impossible and/or unlikely the whole situation is. He can also be really, really funny, which is welcome in a story that needs the laughs.
Everyone else spends most of the film with dour expressions on their faces, and labored bits of whimsy, like the bodybuilder who works just the right-hand side of his body, only serve as distraction. The problem gets worse toward the film’s end, as the story gets more urgently complicated and Shyamalan forces all the supernatural creatures his script has yet described on screen in a anticlimactic show-me-the-monster creaturefest.
Speaking of distraction, I really wonder at Shyamalan’s insistence on interjecting himself into his own films. With Lady in the Water, he moves from making Hitchockian cameo appearances to playing a significant role. He portrays a brilliant, unheralded author — a move that might register in his own mind as playful, but comes across as self-absorption. (The irony is that, as good a director as Shyamalan has proven to be, he’s not much of a writer.)
And who knew Shyamalan’s hackles were raised so high by his critical notices? Bob Balaban, playing a joyless movie and book reviewer named Harry Farber (because it’s hard to imagine why Shyamalan would have beef with Manny Farber, this must be a tip of the hatchet to Movieline‘s Stephen Farber), breaks the fourth wall at some point during the third act as he delivers the kind of observations about the rules of horror film construction that Kevin Williamson brought into vogue and made passé over the course of three Scream movies. The joke in this case is that he’s proved wrong — Shyamalan is willing to violate whatever rules of story construction he’s aware of if it means he can have a film critic eviscerated on screen by a critter with teeth. I don’t object to the gag, but the tenor of its execution is so chilly and remote that it feels angry, like the director is barely kidding.
But the film is no failure of sheer imagination. Shyamalan delivers one half of a smartly directed, slightly goofy fairy tale. Even as it collapses under its own weight — and more so than in previous, more gimmicky films — I admired Shyamalan’s confidence in his own vision. He’s certainly not afraid of looking foolish.