A sea nymph shares a suburban Philadelphia swimming pool with a million red herrings in "Lady in the Water," M. Night Shyamalan's latest attempt to make us believe in miracles. This is not a voyage to the bottom of the sea, along the lines of "The Little Mermaid," to name one of the film's inspirations. It's just a voyage to the bottom of a pool and an adjoining cavern. There dwells a Shyamalan creature known as a "narf," who must be protected on dry land by her human allies from a wolflike predator with green, grassy fur and crimson peepers. By mythical species classification he is a "rogue scrunt." The film is a rogue hunk of hooey.
"Major" is a slippery word: To date, his major works begin with "The Sixth Sense" and end a couple of films later, with "Signs." Those two pictures were buoyed not just by snappy catch-phrases about seeing dead people or a tamped-down A-list movie star like Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson. They shared a simplicity and leanness of design, along with supernaturally well-behaved preteens, supporting all the contemplative atmospheric spookiness. You get a smidgen of that in "Lady in the Water." What you don't get is swept away, or seduced.
To be sure, any film featuring a narf and a scrunt and a first-rate cast led by Paul Giamatti has a few non-formulaic things in its favor. The story begins with an illustrated prologue setting up the newly minted mythology at hand, a world divided into sea and land beings. "Once, man and those in the water were linked," intones the narrator. Now, the odd shimmering nymph appears to humans in need of "an awakening."
Played by Giamatti, Cleveland Heep is just such a human. A shy, fastidious caretaker with a stutter and a load of unexamined grief, he spies a stranger swimming in the pool after hours. It's a lady narf, a madame narf, in fact, who goes by the insufferable name of Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). She has traveled from "the Blue World" seeking her "guardian," as well as a "guild." Heep learns that those she seeks all live in the five-story apartment complex. Figuring out who's who takes up an inordinate amount of this frustrating picture.
"Lady in the Water" grew out of an extended bedtime story Shyamalan concocted for his two daughters. (In stores now is his children's book, also called "Lady in the Water," which delves into the narf and scrunt universe but is unrelated plot-wise to the film.) After an over-explanatory prologue, the picture proper begins well enough. Then things start feeling improvisational in not-good ways. In dribs and drabs Heep learns about the narf mythology third-hand, in conversations and phone calls with the daughter of Mrs. Chow, one of his tenants. Determining the identities of the guardian and the guild takes up an ill-advised amount of screen time. While the director hasn't forgotten how to startle an audience--here, sudden blasts of water from a sprinkler do the trick--he's less successful at pulling us through the expositional thickets.
The cast does all it can. Giamatti modulates his wry comic timing to plaintive dramatic effect. Howard, resembling Shakespeare's Ophelia a few years after the drowning, struggles to enliven the mysterious nymph who so very, very rarely uses contractions in her sentence construction. (Typical line of dialogue: "Your words are very beautiful. Your heart is very big.") Reliable pros such as Bob Balaban, playing the world's most heinous film critic (a stand-in for all those who have ever dissed a Shyamalan film), Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin and Sarita Choudhury invest this solemn exercise with touching sincerity. Shyamalan himself takes a large supporting role of a visionary writer destined to change the world. Egowise, that should take care of him for a while.
The tone of the picture feels as if Shyamalan weren't certain of how scary or whimsical or grave "Lady in the Water" should be. Just when the movie cries out for some visual magic, when Heep swims into the magical lair of Story (That name! Why not just call her Undersea Metaphor?), we don't get it. Just when the story begs for some clean lines and a sense of direction, we get dithering and misdirection and another confused-tenants sequence.
What I continue to appreciate about Shyamalan, through fine films and missteps, is his insistence on the value of quiet interaction. He believes in long takes and slow builds. These days, that alone makes him a worthwhile oddity. Very little about his filmmaking technique and his story interests can be described as typical. Next time out, though, I wouldn't mind a story without a character named Story, and a fairy tale that feels inevitable as opposed to improvised on the set, between takes.
'Lady in the Water'
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; cinematography by Christopher Doyle; edited by Barbara Tulliver; production design by Martin Childs; music by James Newton Howard; produced by Shyamalan and Sam Mercer. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some frightening sequences).
Cleveland Heep - Paul Giamatti
Story - Bryce Dallas Howard
Farber - Bob Balaban
Dury - Jeffrey Wright
Anna Ran - Sarita Choudhury
Reggie - Freddy Rodriguez
Leeds - Bill Irwin