Now, in 2006, Shyamalan has returned with the latest of his brilliant beyond brilliant ideas with Lady in the Water. No, I'm not kidding. Lady in the Water is the product of an excellently invented mythology, the kind that might have made a fantastic and exciting long novel. As it stands, however, Lady in the Water is a movie... and not a great one, sadly. Shyamalan's well thought out ideas are there, no doubt, however, they remain obscured somewhere just below the shallow surface. The coolness of Night is still there, the wonder and the sharp wit are all there too... but something's missing.
Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heep, the perennial nice-guy Handyman of a mid-range Apartment Complex in Pennsylvania called "The Cove". He manages a series of too-quirky-for-reality tenants, each of whom has his or her own surreal talent. Somehow they still all remain paper-thin.
When Heep investigates just who has been taking part in unauthorized swimming jaunts in the Cove's pool (shaped somewhere in between a heart and a tear drop... aaaaaaaawwwwwwww), he comes face to face with The Lady in the Water (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, looking incredibly hot). It turns out that the lady (who calls herself "Story") is part of a group of water nymphs (known as "Narfs") who have advised brutal mankind time after time throughout history. She also isn't alone. The rules dictate that the bad guys (in the form of super-natural monster dogs made out of grass and called "Scrunts") can show up at a moment's notice to turn Story into Purina.
Luckily everything is governed by three supernatural brothers who live like monkeys in the trees. Oh, and there's a gigantic mystical eagle as well, who proves to be the key to the entire story. Cleaveland Heep buys into all of this without any question whatsoever, possibly because Story lets him see her naked (she doesn't let us see her naked, but okay...). His faith in Story is secured by the fact that the young hip college lass named Choi Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung) was told a similar tale as a bedtime story. Because she and her mother (June Kyoto Lu) are able to help Heep piece together the mythology to help fill in the blanks of Story's story, everything starts flipping like Dominoes!
The problem is, it's a damned outlandish story. He believes her because there's a Bedtime Story that proves that she's telling the truth? A'ight. Yes, I was enchanted, yes, I loved the theme and yes, I get it, this is supposed to be a bedtime story, in short, a Fairy Tale. However, one would think that a skeptic like Heep would give more than a "Just a Minute" before buying into the whole shebang. Not that anyone else hesitates to jump right in either. The Lady is looking for a writer, one that may change the course of human history. Ah, yes, I get that Metaphor... a STORY looking for a WRITER... now who could play the part of that character, oh, I just don't know... could it be... M. Night Shyamalan? Yep. Shyamalan, who also wrote this film, does indeed play Vick Ran, the writer. Neither he, nor his sister Anna (Sarita Choudhury) doubt this tale any more than Heep does. Neither do the newly recruited philosophical stoners (played, in no particular order, by Joseph D. Reitman, Jared Harris, Grant Monohon, John Boyd and Ethan Cohn), the walking Phillips Milk of Magnesia commercial Bubchiks (Tom Mardirosian and Tovah Feldshuh), the puzzle fanatic Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright) and his son Joey (Noah Gray-Cabey), the crazy cat lady Mrs. Bell (Mary Beth Hurt) or the reclusive Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin).
And that's a lot of people to buy into this. By the time anyone starts questioning anything, it's almost ridiculous for them to do so, considering the fact that there's pretty much no denying that there's a wolf made out of the LAWN right there in front of them all. Similarly, Night's sacrifice of real character development for hinted shocks in the past seems to not come to much in the final analysis. Don't get me wrong, I'm with Night on this one. It's a sweet story, and I wanted to believe in it too... but I couldn't. If only the concept of all these people taking this leap of faith at once was the only problem. It isn't. For someone whose attention to detail has been a mark of his success (who out there hasn't re-watched The Sixth Sense a few times to prove that one?), there are some major disconnects in this film. While Shyamalan makes it perfectly clear that this most certainly is a surreal Bedtime Story, after a while, that fact starts to feel like an excuse for some of the weaker chinks in the armor. I salute and applaud Shyamalan's breathtaking imagination and his superb originality. There is simply no one else out there who makes movies like this or with such daring. However, he asks a lot of the audience without giving much reason for our faith here. So much feels contrived to simply move the story along that even the kid in all of us will likely roll our eyes a few times.
The good in this film is noteworthy, especially when one takes it piecemeal. Shyamalan shows his directing prowess once again, using his camera not as a tool, but as a paintbrush. His use of color and contrast as well as surprising camera work manages to enhance the most special of effects and the most mundane of normalcy alike. As in Signs, Shyamalan gives us a huge story, seen from the eyes of only a few. While we've all seen enough Alien Invasion flicks to relate to what's going on in the outside world when the poor farming family holes up in their basement, this is a new mythology, one from Night's own head. Quite simply, we needed more development for Lady in the Water to float!
Night also seems to either be anticipating the savagery he's getting from critics or is taking revenge for the savagery he's received in the past by placing all of the arrogance, misunderstanding, mistrust and sanctimony in the form of a single character. You guessed it, it's a film critic named Harry Farber (Bob Balaban). Night uses him as an indictment for all the know-it-alls who don't know jack out there, and even manages to prove him (and thus, them) wrong. Sadly this, though clever, is far too obvious a conceit and wears as thin as the rest of this movie. Night's quirkiness seems to enhance his idea of making this a Fairy Tale (something that should not be nitpicked), but almost goes too far, making the viewer feel like Night is simply being self-indulgent (see the oh-come-on addition of a lop-sided tenant named Reggie (Freddy RodrÝguez) who works out only half his body).
Of course, that is most certainly what Night is doing here. He is being self-indulgent, he is creating a movie for himself. This could be why he took his film to Warner Brothers when Disney offered too much suit-controlled changes. This is a story for him, for his family, and for his closest of fans. Being among those fans, I personally had difficulty getting too wrapped up in what should have been an engrossing tale. Perhaps Night continues to be a victim of his own success. The Sixth Sense worked because it was so different and surprising. Unbreakable fascinated its fans because it was the most striking and uncommon look at superheroes ever made for the screen. Signs took a UFO story and made a chilling, yet poignant family drama out of that familiar theme. The Village, predictable though it was, still managed to show us a story we wouldn't see from any other director. We've come to expect the unexpected from this auteur. We don't go to see a Shyamalan film for the same old thing. Lady in the Water is different. Lady in the Water is brilliantly conceived! Lady in the Water again mixes the Horror Genre with something new (this time, fairy tale fantasy). However, Lady in the Water simply doesn't rise past its surface and manages to be a misfire in spite of its best intentions.
Well intentioned it is. Well imagined it is. However, it's also poorly translated to the screen, leaving us either wanting for more or needing to read the children's book he wrote to coincide with this movie. I appreciated the horror aspects and I appreciated the mystical wonder, and yes, in many cases I appreciated the acting and the directing. Sadly, this amounts to appreciating only a part of what should have been a masterpiece. Two and One Half Stars out of Five for Lady in the Water. I still recommend you see this, appreciate this for what it is and think on the themes and concepts. Most certainly Lady in the Water will have its fans, and I'm not ready to count myself out of that group. However, "liking" something and appreciating its final quality are two different Fairy Tales. It's got the horror, the sweetness, the comedy, the brilliance, but it just doesn't have enough of that Je Ne Sais Que that makes for a cohesive six reels. Until I lose all my childlike suspension of disbelief, I'll see you, and night, in the Next Reel... making it, I guess, the seventh.
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