Lady in the Water, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.
Wet, weird, and absurd
Whatever else they may accomplish, the films of M. Night Shyamalan exhibit an odd and often original imagination. They explore the supernatural and the horrific while placing their mysteries within the commonplace --- a recognizable and fully realized setting of work, familiar objects, family life. His careful cinematic frameworks, however, frequently also raise some inevitable problems when their ostensible objectivity and logic disintegrate under even moderately close scrutiny. Intergalactic travelers find their way to Earth but somehow need a map to negotiate the cornfields of rural America in Signs; the nonsense of a group of idealists turn the clock and the calendar back to the 19th century in order to guarantee the safety and innocence of their children in The Village.
In Lady in the Water, Shyamalan once again grounds the story in an initially authentic and somewhat comical vision of ordinary life, but soon transports his plot and characters to a most complicated and unconvincing place, where the intersection with fantasy destroys virtually any hope of conviction. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the superintendent of a small apartment complex called The Cove, discovers the presence of a young woman aptly named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a sort of water nymph called a Narf, who dwells somewhere below the swimming pool in a place she calls The Blue World. For reasons too complicated and obscure to explain, she needs Cleveland's help to save her from some evil creatures called --- brace yourself --- Scrunts, half boar, half wolf, and all horrible.
The unfolding of the narrative and the confrontation with evil ultimately involve just about all the residents of The Cove, a building inhabited mostly by oddballs, eccentrics, and assorted nuts. To determine the meaning of Story's story and find a way to defeat the Scrunts, Cleveland enlists the aid of a young Korean woman and her mother, who spins, intermittently throughout the film, a long, intricate fairytale that explains the whole business of the Narfs, the Scrunts, some other creatures called Tartutics, and a gigantic eagle-like bird called The Great Eatlon.
Just about all the residents correspond to the people in the convoluted tale --- figures known as the Healer, the Guardian, the Guild, the Man With No Secrets, etc. --- and as they learn its elements and their roles, they all attempt to help Cleveland defeat the Scrunts and return Story safely to the Blue World. At the same time, almost all the first interpretations of the tale and the place of various people in it, no matter how plausible initially, turn out to be incorrect. So the movie in effect keeps revising itself, changing the function and meaning of its characters and the working out of its plot.
Just as Cleveland returns over and over again to the Korean storyteller, who keeps adding new chapters, new creatures, and new wrinkles to her account, Story, whose name grows ever more significant, also explains some of her past and present actions, adding yet more complication. She also knows the history of the people she encounters, including Cleveland's tragic past, and predicts the future of others, notably a blocked writer working on an important book (a large role played by the director himself) that will change the world.
Shyamalan also includes a kind of critical interpretation of his method through another of the characters, a nerdy, misanthropic book and film critic --- ouch ---who also deciphers some elements of the story and explains matters like plot, formula, and narrative construction to Cleveland. He provides yet another perspective on the film, which constantly threatens to turn into a running commentary on its own composition. The critic (Bob Balaban) even confronts one of the Scrunts and explains to the horrid beast what it will do and how he will escape in accordance with the patterns of B horror films.
The collision of the ordinary and the fantastic that drives the action of Lady in the Water loses much of its impact through the constant self reflexive revision and commentary. The tale's silliness and weirdness and its compulsive accumulation of ever more plot, character, and critical analysis ultimately turn it into another Shyamalan absurdity. Finally, all that mumbo jumbo about The Blue World, the Narfs, the Great Eatlon, the Tartutics, and the good old Scrunts simply overwhelms all pretensions to the commonplace and convincing, while weakening any attempt at satisfactory fantasy as well.