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M. Night Shyamalan's LADY IN THE WATER is often cited as the film that changed his career. While he hoped the film would place him irrevocably among the pantheon of greats (he had been compared to Alfred Hitchcock since his first major film, THE SIXTH SENSE, won critical acclaim in 1999), it ended up as the start of his slide into mediocrity. The critics were ruthless when LADY was released, and audiences agreed that the film was a muddled mess. But for some reason I like it. And I'm not totally sure why.
At its heart, LADY IN THE WATER is a fable based on a bedtime story Shyamalan made up for his own children. The plot centers on a sea nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who mysteriously appears in the swimming pool of a run-down apartment complex in Philadelphia. The manager of the complex, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), tries to figure out who Story is, where she came from, and what her mission is. She tells Heep that she's a "Narf" from the "Blue World" who has come in search of a writer whose words are destined to change the future. After she finds him, she can return to the Blue World . . . that is, if she can elude the vicious "Scrunts" that are determined to stop her. To help Story, Cleveland must identify certain people from among the apartment complex's oddball residents to play the roles of "Healer," "Guardian," "Symbolist," and "Guild." Only they can help her get home.
There are some really good things about LADY IN THE WATER. First, Paul Giamatti is phenomenal as beleaguered apartment manager Cleveland Heep. This is a guy who was once a doctor, with a wife and children . . . but now he's alone and depressed and without an apparent purpose in life. He is onscreen for almost all of the film's 110 minutes, and he's wonderfully watchable. Some of the other actors are also quite good, including Bryce Dallas Howard as Story (she comes across as sort of a mermaid with legs), Cindy Cheung as Korean student Young-Soon Choi (who helps Cleveland unravel the strands of the fairy tale), and Bob Balaban has some of the film's funniest moments as a self-absorbed film critic (more on him later).
Also, the juxtaposition of the fantastical fairy tale and the very down-to-earth reality of the apartment complex and its residents can be quite charming. There's something very satisfying in watching Giamatti's character struggle with absurd terms like "Narf" and "Scrunt" as he tries to figure out whether the guy who spends his days doing crossword puzzles could be the "Symbolist." Is the group of over-the-hill hippies (who smoke and philosophize all day) the "Guild"? And is Clevelend himself Story's "Guardian"? And does it matter than none of this makes one bit of logical sense?
Not really. But other things do matter. The fairy tale (or bedtime story, as Shyamalan calls it) is so convoluted, and so difficult to explain, that too much has to be told through exposition. Heep asks Young-Soon about the story, and she asks her mother (who speaks only Korean) - the conversations between the three of them are meant to inform the viewers, but it loses its charm fairly quickly. Additionally, it's not at all clear why only these two Korean women have heard this particular fairy tale . . . and why couldn't Heep have just checked on the Internet? More egregious are the dreadful special effects, which look like something out of the old "Power Rangers" TV show. The Scrunt, which is supposed to be a creature with grass-like fur, looks like a cartoon wolf draped in AstroTurf. The "Tarturic" (described as horrifying creatures sent to stop the Scrunts) look like funny monkeys covered in twigs. And the supposedly majestic "Great Eatlon" (the giant eagle meant to carry Story home to the Blue World at the end of the film) is not really shown at all. For this film to work, the creatures need to be as real as Story is -- and they are not.
But the most difficult problem with LADY IN THE WATER is Shyamalan's insistence on using the film not only for shameless self-promotion (after all, he casts himself as visionary writer Vick Ran, whose words are destined to change the world) but to get revenge against the critics who had the audacity to criticize THE VILLAGE (released the year before LADY). Bob Balaban's character is a smug, arrogant film critic who mocks the films he's paid to review - his is the only character to die in this film, and it's clear that he is a product of Shyamalan's rage. These things make the film seem uncomfortably personal, as if we're all watching a Shyamalan home movie, or somehow wading around inside Shyamalan's murky brain. And the story itself gets lost somewhere along the way.
Why do I still like this movie? I honestly don't know. I like the idea that myths and fables carry within them a grain of truth. As Young-Soon tells Heep, "It's time to prove some stories are real." I also like the idea that we all have a purpose in life, but it's not always easy to discover what that purpose is. In this film, Heep is lost. He no longer has hope in the future, and at its core LADY is expressing his longing "to believe in more than this dreadful world." That's a longing I share.
I see glimpses in this film of what it could have been, had Shyamalan been able to step away from the production enough to see it without his own very personal blinders. Heep's journey is deeply meaningful, as revealed in the climactic scene when he and the others are finally coming together to help Story. Through his experiences with her and with those pledged to help her, he finds not only his true purpose but a real understanding of what it means to live. This is so much more important, and so much more engaging, than the silly side-plot about a writer whose words will save the world. Shyamalan's films will not save the world. That is not his purpose, whether he realizes this or not. LADY IN THE WATER should have been a beautiful little film about one man's spiritual journey. Even as it is, it's a charming parable worth watching. See it for what it could have been, rather than for what it is.