Fractured fairy tale
'Lady in the Water' reflects M. Night Shyamalan's deep gifts as a filmmaker. But it's also drenched in self-regard.
A few years ago, the quick, trick ending of M. Night Shyamalan's superhero opus, ``Unbreakable," left me in a state of wild exasperation. (``That was a beginning!") Then, a good friend offered this consolation: The movie, he said, was like watching someone meticulously snip through a stack of paper. Two hours later, the cutter puts down his scissors and reveals his deceptively ornate creation: a snowflake. My friend had perfectly captured the sense of craftsmanship that can be so captivating, so wondrous, and so infuriating about an M. Night film. On the other hand, a different friend says the director just puts the ``sham" in Shyamalan.
In any case, ``Lady in the Water" is the director's latest and most complicated paper snowflake -- or sham, if you're so inclined. The movie gives us Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a dolorous, stuttering widower who manages a large courtyard apartment complex somewhere in or near Philadelphia. (The city has never seemed more like Santa Monica, but never mind.)
Cleveland makes his way around the property. He pops in on the multiethnic collection of residents that make the place a virtual international house and gives a tour to his newest tenant, a book and film critic named Farber (like the great critic Manny Farber), whom Bob Balaban plays with humorous humorlessness. One night, Cleveland tumbles into the courtyard's swimming pool and is rescued by the strange young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who lives in the waters beneath it. She has perfect skin, even better diction, but terrible bangs. Her name is Story, and, as the namesake implies, she arrives with a tale. But the rules of her world prohibit her from telling it.
Cleveland deduces that his guest is a character in a bedtime story known only by the Korean lady (June Kyoto Lu) who lives with her Americanized daughter (Cindy Cheung) in one of the units. (Shyamalan actually based the film on a tale he invented for his little girls.) Apparently, Story is a ``narf," some kind of lost sea nymph. And it's crucial she get back to her watery home before the killer wolf thing lurking in the woods around the building comes and gets her.
Like Shyamalan's four previous movies -- ``The Sixth Sense," ``Unbreakable," ``Signs," and, especially, ``The Village," this new film is a trip to ``The Twilight Zone." (Giamatti's romantic sadness and simmering temper make him the ideal man for any of the original episodes.) The director's ambition to build suspense through withholding and irony has won him Hitchcock comparisons. His ability to entertain with cinematically robust storytelling is comparable to Spielberg's. And `` Lady in the Water" is sometimes a pleasing amalgam of the adventures in point-of-view from ``Rear Window" and the fantastical homecoming of ``E.T."
Shyamalan's movie is also a cockier and more precious thing. It's a fable about fables -- or, more precisely, about how nobody makes good fables anymore. Yet despite how delightful it is watching Giamatti try to bring together the strands of story, Shyamalan's fairy tale doesn't hold up to scrutiny -- at least after a first viewing. (A new book about Shyamalan's making of the movie, ``The Man Who Heard Voices," only helps a little.)
The film's narrative, as it turns out, is beside the point of Shyamalan's other thematic pursuits, one of which happens to be himself. Sure, the superb cast also includes Jeffrey Wright, Jared Harris, Mary Beth Hurt, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, and the lovely Sarita Choudhury, but Shyamalan plays the film's heaviest supporting role, a writer who's composed a book that, according to Story, will change the world. She pays him further superlative compliments and tells him of his important destiny. The impulse is to roll your eyes while the filmmaker pats himself on the back.
Nothing Shyamalan has made aspires to world-changing greatness -- or, at least, none of it is world-changing great. But in each of his movies, Shyamalan is trying to wed the horrors of the outside world with those in his insular, hermitically sealed universe. It can be a pretentious and exasperating marriage, since Shyamalan ends his movies the moment reality threatens to invade them. The most amazing example is the sociological prank and suburban-paranoia metaphor that ``The Village" turned out to be.
`` Lady in the Water" doesn't conclude with a trap-door ending, but current events are vaguely all around. For instance, there is war on the television set, and at one crucial point toward the end, the character who spends most of the movie watching it barks at the make-believe absurdity Cleveland has roped him and the other tenants into. He's offended. Understandably so. On some level, what Shyamalan is asking us to do -- to forget the wall-to-wall chaos of our times -- is offensive. Most movies require surrender, but Shyamalan wants us to see `` Lady in the Water" as a sanctuary. It doesn't have that kind of power. It's built on too much ponderous self-regard. And I'm saying this as someone who was tickled by the film's harsh treatment of the starchy movie critic.
Nonetheless, it is possible to wrestle yourself from the movie's hokey ambitions. There is a good chunk of `` Lady in the Water" that is simply too well made and affectingly acted to dismiss as a mere exercise in arrogance. You're tempted to believe in Shyamalan's belief in storytelling, even if you don't believe in Shyamalan himself.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.