Shyamalan's 'Lady' Doesn't Hold Water

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 2006 | Go to article overview

Shyamalan's 'Lady' Doesn't Hold Water


Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 seriously.

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. …

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