M. Night Shyamalan has done well out of the surprise success of 1999’s The Sixth Sense. Despite increasingly poor critical and commercial responses to his films since (Unbreakable, Signs, The Village), he continues to get major studio backing. This latest project was dropped by Disney (the backers of his earlier films), but eventually found a home at Warner Bros. After seeing Lady in the Water I can’t help but wonder what Warner Bros were thinking when they gave Shyamalan the ‘green light’.
After a short animated sequence that tells us of the mythical ‘water people’, we are introduced to Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the superintendent of a Philadelphia apartment complex. We also meet some of the many eccentric inhabitants of this building, including an arrogant film critic, a crossword fanatic and his precocious son, a mysterious recluse, a Korean student and her volatile mother, a group of chain-smoking unemployed men, and a man whose various health issues are broadcast by his loudmouthed wife. All of these characters will play a part in the film’s confusing, convoluted plot.
One evening, while investigating a noise in the garden, Heep falls unconscious into the communal swimming pool. He is rescued by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a fragile, pale-skinned being who claims to have come from the ‘Blue World’ and whispers about ‘narfs’. Instead of ringing the police or the local psychiatric hospital, Heep consults the Korean lady upstairs, who, conveniently, knows all about ‘narfs’, as well as the ‘scrunt’ (a cross between a wolf and a piece of astroturf) and the ‘tartutic’ (a monkey with quills).
I won’t spoil the fun by attempting to explain what happens next. In fact, I couldn’t if I wanted to, suffice to say that it includes a Guild, a Symbolist, a Healer, a Guardian, and a giant eagle. There are secrets and clues, a cave under the swimming pool, and a gifted boy who can see profound things in the packaging of breakfast cereals.
Shyamalan would like the film to be seen as a kind of modern fairy tale, but seems to have forgotten that the fundamental attribute of a great fairy tale is simplicity. You should be able to summarise its plot in a sentence or two. I could waste a few pages trying to explain Lady in the Water and it still wouldn’t make any sense.
Paul Giamatti performs admirably as the ‘everyman’ Heep, as do those cast as the various apartment dwellers (which include Bob Balaban, Mary Beth Hurt and Jared Harris). But there’s only so much they can do with the material. (In fact they do well not to giggle while delivering some of the silly dialogue.) Bryce Dallas Howard, as Story the narf, looks delicate and otherworldly, but doesn’t really have much to do, while the casting of Shyamalan himself as a writer destined to change the world is either a major blunder or a really bad joke.
Given the poor response Lady in the Water has received in the US I would be surprised to see Shyamalan given the freedom to indulge himself again as he has here. It’s not the worst movie I have seen, but it’s certainly one of the silliest.