M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, “Lady in the Water”, is his most complex and elaborate film. It’s also his least entertaining. It does have some interesting moments, but generally fails because the story is so uninspiring. This is a deathblow for a film that is branded as a bedtime story, a dark fantasy for all ages. It simply does not achieve the greatness that it thinks it deserves. Shyamalan is often criticized for his perceived egomania, but he might warrant that criticism here. He plays a pivotal acting part in the film, which is ably done; but confounding in the sense that a greater actor would have done it better.
Paul Giamatti, in another great performance, stars as Cleveland Heep, the janitor/maintenance man for a small apartment building. Someone has been raising a ruckus late nights by the pool, and stealing whatever is in the immediate area. Cleveland catches the culprit in the act, but is thoroughly surprised by his discovery. A water nymph, who we later learn is called a Narf (Bryce Dallas Howard), lives underneath the pool. The Narf is actually the Queen of her kind, who is fated to bring man and the underwater creatures back together after eons. The problem is that a ferocious, grass-covered, dog-like beast is hunting her. Cleveland learns from the Narf that the tenants of the building are fated to protect her from the creature. They have mythical names like the guild, the guardian, and the healer. Cleveland must uncover their identities before it’s too late, while hiding his own dark secret from a tragic past.
What makes this film unusual is the way the plot is revealed. It is, at heart, an intricate mystery. The characters, and there are a few them, openly talk about the plot. They discuss what’s happening around them and propel the plot in doing so. Normally this is a sign of a weak script, but this is not the case here. Shyamalan’s goal is recreate a bedtime story, so he wants the audience to be constantly told what’s happening. That’s evident; the flaw is that the dialogue gets very thick throughout the course of the film. It slows down an already sluggish pace and makes everything tedious to the point of boredom. I simply lost interest and didn’t care who was who or what was going to happen.
Shyamalan’s mythology is also incomprehensible. He weaves an incredible back-story to the events in the building. We are given a five-minute prelude in the beginning of the film, then inundated with details for the rest of it. This might work if there was some prior knowledge of said mythology. It doesn’t exist; the idea is a wholly original one by Shyamalan. I was left scratching my head by the constant barrage of these mythological references. It made an already hard to follow film even more obscure.
There are some positives that are noteworthy. First, the performances are banner all around. Shyamalan’s cast is filled with top-notch theatrical actors. I also appreciate the originality. The film is radically different from what we would normally see in a summer blockbuster. And there are some frightening moments. Shyamalan is often compared to Hitchcock, and he successfully incorporates that shock element in some key scenes. Unfortunately they are few and far between.
Summer films should not masquerade as popcorn films when they’re not. A genuine entertainment value was expected after seeing the previews, which the film simply does not deliver. I appreciate that Shyamalan is doing something different. He just needed to do it in an interesting way.