In the great generic title tradition of Woman In the Window, Girl On the Bridge and Female On the Beach comes M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady In the Water, though she’s not so much a lady as an errant freshwater nymph, a blankly angelic if bedraggled innocent who maintains an underwater cave packed with magically healing mud and decorated with bits of lost jewelry, and the water here mostly means a communal swimming pool that anchors a fairly grubby apartment complex.
More valuable for its comic moments than for its monsters fashioned from purest CGI, Lady In the Water works best as an allegory of storytelling, wherein Shyamalan dreams up an elaborate myth about this sodden sylph (tellingly named Story), sent from “the world of water” on a mission to inspire a great writer. Complete with a menagerie of mythical beasts with fantasy names (the red-eyed Skrunts, which can only be seen backwards in a mirror, and the dreaded tree-dwelling Tartooriks, “so evil they killed their parents the night they were born”), he makes a mystery out of puzzling out the inexplicably complicated formula for her to communicate her message to the collection of eccentrics gathered in this downscale dwelling.
Almost the entire film is devoted to discovering the arcane rules and limitations and imperatives of the myth, mostly gleaned from the baleflully monolingual mother of a pink-haired Korean punkette (she’s a college student who only takes courses with multiple-choice exams, and an unsettlingly funny Asian stereotype to boot). All these characters, plus the crossword-puzzle fanatic, the demi-muscleman, the cat-lady, the gaggle of dopers, revolve around [the] Story, trying to find their proper place in the narrative. Conveniently, everyone blithely accepts her identity and unquestioningly drops everything to collaborate on resolving the fairy-tale, and not surprisingly, the director also stocks his pool with plenty of red herrings.
Mirroring Charlie Kaufman, Shyamalan adds a meta-layer featuring a haughty, smarty-pants film critic (“Harry” Farber, improbably dispatched to Philadelphia “from the west coast”) who thinks he can predict all the plot turns and pronounces weightily on the scenario’s shortcomings (“The characters were walking around saying their thoughts out loud. Who talks like that?”) Not long after this remark, sad to say, he’s wolfed down by ravening beasts.
Amidst all this hokum, Shymalan amusingly makes himself the doe-eyed tragic hero, the “Chosen One”, who’s writing a book full of “lots of things people won’t want to hear” but will make him famous. Without Paul Giamatti at its focal point, as the building’s beleaguered superintendent, the movie would instantly fall apart, without making anyone famous. Together Shyamalan and his leading man craft some choice comic moments, beginning with a wittily shot opening sequence that pits man against hairy bug (though the charitable viewer will agree to forget the embarrassingly broad scene where Giamatti regresses to a little boy listening to a bedtime story).
Less fortunate in the title role, Bryce Dallas Howard is constrained by her pathetic character, who has neither history nor wisdom that she’s allowed to discuss. All she can do is bat her lashes and look pale and fragile as she delivers lines that sound like they’ve been fed through a New Age translation service: “Your words are very beautiful. Your heart is very big” and “People are all connected”. Who talks like that?
Shyamalan directs in his proto-Spielberg style of shallow focal lengths and huge screen-filling close-ups, using James Newton Howard’s portentous score to energize his menacing subjective shots from the monster’s point-of-view, but the overall effect is more startling than frightening, and more playful than startling. Glimpses of TV reportage about the Iraq war (plus excerpts from five early Bob Dylan songs) intimate that the U.S. is a country in trouble, but how serious is a thick-tongued luuded-out version of “The Times They Are A-Changin'”? With its triumphal ending, doesn’t this whole story play into American exceptionalism, with its “special” mission and “special” identities and “special” powers”?
In the end, though, nothing internal to Lady in the Water proves scarier than Shyamalan’s relentless self-promotion across media boundaries, turning even an impromptu bedtime story for his daughters (so he says) into an opportunity for simultaneously producing a children’s book plus a biography of the chosen one himself, both strategically published to fit into the hype campaign surrounding the movie’s release. If these times are a-changin’, it’s not for the better.