M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water" should be called "Dead
in the Water." The idea for this ingrown idyll grew out of bedtime
stories Shyamalan concocted for his daughters. One wonders if the
girls had the nerve to tell Daddy he should avoid at all costs
turning these tales into a movie.
Apparently not many people have the nerve to tell Shyamalan much
of anything - anything negative, that is - and still remain a
collaborator. When the Disney executives wavered at the prospect of
making "Lady in the Water," citing chasmic script problems,
Shyamalan decamped to rival Warner Bros., whose publicists should
really be commended for handling this film with a straight face.
There are few hard and fast rules in the movie business, but one
of them is: Characters who speak without using contractions are
annoying. Cleveland Heep, a woebegone apartment manager in
Philadelphia, played by Paul Giamatti, is pretty good at using
contractions. But then he rescues a mermaid, whose name, helpfully,
is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) from the complex's swimming pool, and
gets a lesson in nymphspeak.
Example: "I am from the Blue World."
It turns out that Story is a "narf," a fairy tale creature who is
being pursued by another Blue World renegade, the Scrunt, a werewolf-
like horror with perhaps the fakest-looking body parts this side of
an Ed Wood movie. But at least Scrunt is an evocative moniker, much
better than narf, which is too close to "nerf" to be taken
Story, needless to say, is on a "quest." A quest in the movies is
invariably a day trip that has turned mythic. In the case of "Lady
in the Water," the mythos is all in Shyamalan's mind. His carrying
card as a writer-director has always been his supposed fearlessness -
his ability to venture forth into the mystical underbrush where
smaller souls dare not tread.
But with the exception of the ingeniously dolorous "The Sixth
Sense," Shyamalan's ego has always outstripped his achievement. Not
content simply to be a new-style Hitchcock or a junior-league
Spielberg, he wants to be deified as a truth-teller, a spiritual
guide with the untrammeled soul of a child. His hot-air religiosity
reached its lowest high point in "Signs," but it's been a constant
throughout his oeuvre, and never more so than in "Lady in the
Water," where Story's presence draws together the apartment
complex's denizens into a common destiny. She becomes the agent for
their transcendence. All of which would be fine if Shyamalan
possessed an ounce of transcendent feeling. …