M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water" should be called "Dead in the Water." The idea for this ingrown idyll grew out of bedtime stories Shyamalan concocted for his daughters. One wonders if the girls had the nerve to tell Daddy he should avoid at all costs turning these tales into a movie.
Apparently not many people have the nerve to tell Shyamalan much of anything – anything negative, that is – and still remain a collaborator. When the Disney executives wavered at the prospect of making "Lady in the Water," citing chasmic script problems, Shyamalan decamped to rival Warner Bros., whose publicists should really be commended for handling this film with a straight face.
There are few hard and fast rules in the movie business, but one of them is: Characters who speak without using contractions are annoying. Cleveland Heep, a woebegone apartment manager in Philadelphia, played by Paul Giamatti, is pretty good at using contractions. But then he rescues a mermaid, whose name, helpfully, is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) from the complex's swimming pool, and gets a lesson in nymphspeak.
Example: "I am from the Blue World."
It turns out that Story is a "narf," a fairy tale creature who is being pursued by another Blue World renegade, the Scrunt, a werewolf-like horror with perhaps the fakest-looking body parts this side of an Ed Wood movie. But at least Scrunt is an evocative moniker, much better than narf, which is too close to "nerf" to be taken seriously.
Story, needless to say, is on a "quest." A quest in the movies is invariably a day trip that has turned mythic. In the case of "Lady in the Water," the mythos is all in Shyamalan's mind. His carrying card as a writer-director has always been his supposed fearlessness – his ability to venture forth into the mystical underbrush where smaller souls dare not tread.
But with the exception of the ingeniously dolorous "The Sixth Sense," Shyamalan's ego has always outstripped his achievement. Not content simply to be a new-style Hitchcock or a junior-league Spielberg, he wants to be deified as a truth-teller, a spiritual guide with the untrammeled soul of a child. His hot-air religiosity reached its lowest high point in "Signs," but it's been a constant throughout his oeuvre, and never more so than in "Lady in the Water," where Story's presence draws together the apartment complex's denizens into a common destiny. She becomes the agent for their transcendence. All of which would be fine if Shyamalan possessed an ounce of transcendent feeling. But in addition to his tin ear for dialogue, he has a blinkered eye for the angelic. Story, for instance, looks positively pallid – not since Helena Bonham Carter has there been an actress so chalkwhite. It's difficult to imagine this "narf "nymph inspiring anybody to do anything except dial 911.
Shyamalan has the clout to assemble a marvelous cast and the ineptitude to waste them. Giamatti looks miserable, which no doubt will endear him to the audience for this horrid film. Still, it's great to see him as a leading man. Who says that only actors with strong chins can get the girl?
But Cleveland, who is saddled with a stutter and a weepy personal back story, is a poor excuse for a character – he's like the point man in a scavenger hunt – and the same is true for the characters played by Bill Irwin (bookish shut-in), Jeffrey Wright (crossword maven), Cindy Cheung (Korean-American marathon talker), and Shyamalan, who, in a gesture of extreme humility, casts himself as a would-be writer whose philosophical tome, it is prophesied by Story, will change the world and resonate throughout time.
My favorite apartment dweller, though, is the film critic played by Bob Balaban, a man with a complexion to rival Story's. Like a vampire, he spends his days in the dark plying his foul trade. This dour twit explains to Cleveland that "there is no originality left in the world and no new stories," and of course his presence is intended as a preemptive strike against all those critics who will make fun of this movie. If you don't like "Lady in the Water," it must be because you can't spot originality when it's staring you in the face. Right?
Shyamalan is a classic example of a fairly talented Hollywood auteur who has let his megasuccess go to his head. It is not enough for such filmmakers to make billions; they must also cast themselves as gurus. Emotionally and intellectually, "Lady in the Water" is so far removed from its audience that I can't imagine it being a hit – although, these days, who knows? But I suspect audiences will see Shyamalan's portentous doodle for what it is – the height of arrogance and a bad night out at the movies. Grade: D
• Rated PG-13 for frightening sequences.
Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of mild innuendo. Violence: 10 instances, including attacks by a beast. Profanity: 8 mild expressions, 32 milder. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 3 scenes with drinking, 3 with smoking.