Lady in the Water
2006, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhary, Cindy Cheung, M. Night Shyamalan, Mary Beth Hurt, Freddie Rodriguez.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 21, 2006
It's a banner time for cinematic depictions of film critics, those unsung heroes of the war on fun. First Rob Zombie pointedly mocks Gene Shalit – and honestly, what's not to mock? – in last year's perversely glorious hellbilly flashback The Devil's Rejects, and now M. Night Shyamalan turns a similarly pompous and apparently freeze-dried filmgoer (played to the emotionless anti-hilt by the always excellent actor-writer-director Balaban) into monster chow.
Both directors have legitimate bones to pick with their critics, but where the campily gonzo sadism of Zombie's trashy masterpiece was spiteful good fun, Balaban's cinephobic scribbler seems less a fan of the art form than some misguided CPA who got a dose of bad career advice from his high school guidance counselor and has been paying for it, alone in the dark, ever since. You get the feeling this square wouldn't know the value of one of Russ Meyer's ultravixens if she straddled his twig-thin torso and launched fireballs from her nether regions. And that's why it's such a gas watching him attempt to fend off his impending rending with naught but blustery denial. It's one of several outlandishly fine performances in a film top-loaded with honest-to-goodness acting, a prize in genre filmmaking that's roughly as rare as peace in our time. Shyamalan is already taking something of a critical beating on this, his most personal and ambitious film to date, and while Lady in the Water manages to be both perplexing and glaringly obvious, it's also a commendable effort to create a modern fairy tale from the seabed up. However you feel about Shyamalan's end result, you can fault neither his ambition nor his peculiar vision, which commingles elements of fantasy, horror, and the real world (itself increasingly fantastical and horrific) to craft a surreal, slightly off-kilter twilight tone that Rod Serling would recognize in a heartbeat.
Lady in the Water, however, is murky where it most requires clarity, and the spindliness of its mythic pilings leaves the whole of the film tilting wildly toward the silly. Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, the doleful maintenance man at a gray Philadelphia apartment complex christened The Cove. And it is a cove, harboring both secrets of a nearly divine nature and offering up shelter to various storm-tossed lives. When Heep discovers a skinny-dipping nymph named Story (Howard) in his pool one evening, he inadvertently sets in motion an increasingly improbable series of events that bring to bear his own tragic past and rekindle the spark of hope in a whole slew of both metaphysically and metaphorically sleepwalking tenants. Story really is a denizen of the deep – a "narf" in the kiddie parlance of the film – and she's come on a mission of mercy to awaken humanity's savior with the unwitting aid of a dozen or so locals who possess magical powers of which they are completely unaware. Moreover, she's being stalked by "scrunts," toothy, lupine predators with a taste for two-legged sashimi. Oh, and there's a giant eagle, too.
Giamatti's powerful performance very nearly snatches Lady in the Water from the jaws of hokum – performances are bang-on, and characters are fascinating right across the board, even Shyamalan's own – but ultimately Lady in the Water capsizes under the weight of its own goofy story. There are moments of great beauty throughout (the film was lensed by Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle), and Shyamalan's heart is nowhere if not on his sleeve, but even these moments cannot steer Lady in the Water clear of its director's zealously over-earnest pretensions.