Shyamalan's 'Lady' Floats

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Jane Torrance, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

M. Night Shyamalan may be a victim of his own talent. The spectacular success of his 1999 film "The Sixth Sense" raised his profile, his salary - and expectations. How does he top a film that earned both critical praise and the 22nd highest domestic box office total of all time?

He can't. Not that he hasn't tried: "The Sixth Sense" inaugurated a line of tense supernatural spookers with a surprise at the end.

His latest offering, "Lady in the Water," doesn't quite follow the playbook - there is no twist, for example. But it's still recognizably Shyamalan - for better and worse.

"Lady in the Water," derived from a bedtime story Mr. Shyamalan told his children, starts out with an animated parable on how man's move away from the water paralleled his move away from grace: "Man's need to own everything led him deeper into land."

We are then introduced to the residents of the Cove, a slightly downmarket apartment building in suburban Philadelphia. The caretaker is Cleveland Heep, a stuttering shell of a man (Paul Giamatti). His quiet life is thrown off balance when, searching for an intruder in the pool late at night, he encounters a mysterious stranger. This Lady (an ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard) is more like a girl; she seems as shy as Cleveland is. But she has a profound effect on him. "Why am I not stuttering?" he suddenly wonders.

Her name is Story and, it turns out, she is a character in one. Story is a "narf," a sea nymph sent from the Blue World to fulfill a mission and then return home - but an evil creature known as a "scrunt," a cross between a wild boar and a hyena, is intent on stopping her. This fanciful story mirrors an ancient fairy tale from the East that two Korean tenants explain to Cleveland. By piecing things together, Cleveland realizes that Story can only be saved if all the residents of the building work together.

This is where Mr. Shyamalan is most optimistic. Most viewers will find it easier to believe in narfs and scrunts than that the multicultural melting pot of the Cove will accept Cleveland's tale no-questions-asked and work hand-in-hand to help a stranger meet up with a giant eagle. Most apartment dwellers don't even know - let alone like - their neighbors. …