Lady in the Water (2006) / Fantasy-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for scary images
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, Noah Grey-Cabey
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Review published July 22, 2006

Although M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, Unbreakable) is clearly a very talented writer and director, his films are becoming progressively more ambitious, and unfortunately, progressively difficult to suspend disbelief in.  Lady in the Water is his most ambitious film yet, the kind of film Shyamalan had to leave his longtime studio (Disney) to make because of creative differences.  It's also the kind of movie you'd have to buy into 100% in order to extract the most entertainment value. I'll admit, I was hooked in for most of it, but the ambitions and permutations in the story became just a bit too turbulent for me to maintain that necessary disbelief.  I ended up rolling my eyes during the film's final scenes much more than I would use them to watch patiently what unfolded on screen.

Reportedly, the plot of Lady in the Water revolves around a bedtime story that M. Night Shyamalan had written for his children, which has subsequently been published in book form, coinciding the release of his film ("Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story").   The film version is set in the modern-day "real world" of Philadelphia, where an apartment complex superintendent, Cleveland Heep (Giamatti, Cinderella Man), has been trying to figure out just what's making the noises in the complex swimming pool after hours.  He soon finds out when he has an accident investigating it one night, falling into the pool to drown for sure, only to awaken finding that he's been saved by a mysterious woman named Story (Howard, The Village), who claims to be from the "blue world" in the water.  Heep is appreciative, but skeptical, only changing his tune once Story tries to return home only to draw the ire of a strange canid creature she calls a "scrunt". 

With the help of an elderly Asian neighbor and her daughter, Cleveland begins to learn more about this mythical tale that he now believes is reality, where narfs (water nymphs) appear in order to "awaken" a human that will do something to change the world.  With the only thing he has to go on being that the person is a writer, Cleveland sets about trying to arrange a meeting with the person in the apartment complex that Story is supposed to connect with so that she can be free to return home  However, finding that person, as well as satisfying the other conditions to fulfill Story's mission, proves to be more elaborate than originally planned.

Giving Shyamalan credit where it's due, Lady in the Water is a highly imaginative and original film that will probably hold the attention of most viewers throughout.  It's suspenseful, sometimes scary, occasionally witty, and moves at a brisk enough clip to sidestep many of the pitfalls that a film this ambitious could easily become ensnared in early on.  The visual qualities are sumptuous, as you'd expect from a film shot by esteemed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Last Life in the Universe, Infernal Affairs), and Shyamalan's expertise at making us believe that anything can happen, even in the world of the mundane, is still second to none.

So, where does it go wrong?  This is a complicated answer, because it really depends on you.  Some viewers will probably be able to stick with everything Shyamalan dishes out all the way up to the very end, while others might find it snicker-worthy from the very first instance of outlandish developments.  Yet, if one thinks about Lady in the Water with any objective distance, every character is an unrealistically eccentric oddball, every story element a farfetched contrivance, and the entire project smacks of pretentiousness and an overriding feeling of self-indulgence.  It's as if Shyamalan is telling us, in a metaphorical sense, that he (and perhaps all learned authors) is a visionary that has the capability of crafting great, life-altering works, with his own muses and inspiration that streams to him from the world of the divine.  By casting himself in a prominent role, as the great writer no less, it's not easy to come away from the film without thinking that M. Night Shyamalan is a wee bit full of himself.

After the licking Shyamalan took in his previous effort, The Village, from many critics, it seems to have affected his perspective regarding the talent he possesses.  There is a great deal of self-referential themes within the story itself, and there is even a character portrayed as a semi-villain, Harry Farber (Balaban, A Mighty Wind), the film critic, who constantly derides whatever he sees, unimpressed by the conventional and contrived.  Shyamalan gives the critic the just desserts he feels he deserves, although I should tell you that, in a suitably ironic twist, almost immediately after the film critic departs from the film, so too did I, in a figurative sense. 

Although Shyamalan had been able to keep the preposterousness level mostly at bay, it is in the final quarter of the film that he eschews all pretense of keeping things within the realm of the plausible, and just lets his characters delve in full bore, no longer seeming like real people in real-life situations, assuming their places as mere metaphorical playthings in the grand scheme of an overreaching storyteller.  The delicate delivery of the fantastical elements were enough to keep belief in the film most of the way, only to finally collapse when Shyamalan ditches all subtlety, piling implausibility and silliness on the already hefty load we are all carrying.  The amount of overhead becomes just too much to bear.

The frustration of Lady in the Water lies not with the story, but with Shyamalan's injecting himself far too much in the center of it, both literally and figuratively.  It's just too difficult to buy into the fantasy premise when we are constantly being pulled out of it by self-reference and not-too-subtle commentary on the narrative and filmmaking process.  At the end of the film, he wants us to take it all at face value as a fairy tale, but by this point, we're already too busy analyzing it as an allegory and metaphor for how stories are made to really care about the central characters in the film as real people.

It's "sink or swim" time once the climax arises, but it's hard to keep our heads above water with the weight of the film's already substantially strained plausibility.  We reach out desperately for Shyamalan to throw us a life preserver, hoping the experience that we've all invested our time and intellectual interest in can be salvaged.  In his final act, he tosses us an anchor instead.        

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo