That sinking feeling

Times Staff Writer

IT'S M. Night Shyamalan's world, we only visit it every couple of years. From the gothic haunting of "The Sixth Sense" to the New Age sci-fi of "Unbreakable" and "Signs" and the fable "The Village," the writer-director has created a body of work that has turned him into an above-the-title brand. Those four films have established expectations that he appears to delight in simultaneously embracing and confounding.

More so than the average filmmaker -- and he's anything but average -- Shyamalan seems to really want you to like his movies. They're deeply personal films that strain to be universal, but the tension between his eagerness to please and his resolve to make the film inside his head have resulted, with "Lady in the Water," in a major misfire. The publicity surrounding his acrimonious split with Disney and his willingness to air the details in a book, threaten to overshadow the film he made.

And maybe that's not a bad thing. His seventh feature, "Lady in the Water," is a wan fantasy based on a bedtime story he told his daughters about a sea nymph who needs the help of humans to return to her home in the Blue World. It's a homebrewed mythology that's so generic it borders on being meaningless.

Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, the depressed, middle-aged super at an apartment complex called the Cove, home to an assortment of misfits and ethnic stereotypes. The five-story, 57-unit building is U-shaped, built around a swimming pool the shape of a lopsided heart. At one end, next to a clearing leading to a forest, is a tiny cottage-like attachment where Cleveland lives in humble simplicity.

Cleveland is a sad figure whose liveliest encounters are with Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), a pretty college student who complains her studies interfere with her social life, dresses like Britney Spears and brings Cleveland books to read.

We are introduced to the rest of the Cove's residents as Cleveland shows the newest inhabitant, ill-fated, narrow-minded film and book critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), to his apartment. As the tenants, a bunch of good actors, including Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, Jared Harris and Freddy Rodriguez, are wasted in one-note roles.

Meanwhile, someone has been swimming in the pool after hours, and Cleveland is peeved because it's against the rules and the pool guy is busting his chops over a clogged filter. Hearing splashing one night, he goes to confront the intruder.

The nocturnal swimmer turns out to be Story, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who after starring in "The Village" has become a muse of sorts for the director. Story is a narf, a variety of sea nymph so ethereal and pale as to be nearly translucent, with liquid blue eyes and ringlets of dark red hair. Daryl Hannah's mermaid in "Splash" (coincidentally directed by Howard's father, Ron) is positively earthbound by comparison.

Cleveland rather too quickly buys into Story's improbable yarn about being from the Blue World and needing help to avoid the dangerous scrunt -- a creature that looks like a hyena made out of sticks with a back covered by flat, grass-like fur that acts as camouflage -- lurking outside. Story is safe in the water but requires the help of humans to be ferried back to her world.

Shyamalan is an intuitive filmmaker, and logic is not always a priority in his storytelling. His characters are much too willing to be pawns in the narrative, lacking the individual motivation to lend the film needed urgency. Audiences, however, have free will and need to be wooed to go along with what seems increasingly silly as the narrative plays out.

It's more of a board game along the lines of "Clue" than an actual movie, with Cleveland trying to put together the various pieces of the puzzle. Following the outline of a bedtime story Young-Soon's Korean mother told her, Cleveland must match the talents of his tenants with archetypal helpers such as a guardian, a symbolist and a healer necessary for Story to return home.

Unfortunately, the viewer will nearly always be far ahead of poor Cleveland and the movie, and apart from a few misdirections there's nothing resembling Shyamalan's trademark twists or jolts.

Still, there is something bizarrely compelling about the movie. It's slower than watching a train wreck but invokes that same level of disbelief. It may be an entirely personal reaction to the material, but I experienced a perverse giddiness as Shyamalan's humor and earnestness engaged in mortal combat for the tone of the film.

His films have always had a bit of dry wit -- especially effective in tense moments -- but as he has ratcheted up his sincerity in the most recent films, it's reached the point where it's hard to discern the intentional humor from the unintentional.

Remaining in the same neighborhood, both literally -- Philadelphia and its surroundings -- and figuratively, a self-created genre of soft-sided, uncynical thrillers, Shyamalan has stayed true to his significant fan base. But by making certain choices, he has made a movie that feels too easy to pick on, as if he was setting himself up.

The "Oprah"-ready life lessons that spew from the characters' mouths throughout are the kind of things a more subtle filmmaker would develop as subtext -- or leave out entirely. His heavy-handed use of recurrent themes (loss of innocence, faith, secrets) and motifs (water, mirrors, the creature outside) would make an undergraduate lit major in need of a quick term paper salivate, but, as in some of his other films, they tend not to add up to much.

More damaging still is Shyamalan casting himself as one of the apartment building's residents, a young writer with a manifesto called "The Cookbook," which Story tells him -- she can see the future -- will be of great historic importance. The character's desperate need to be taken seriously drew big-time guffaws at a screening and bears out the reservations expressed by the Disney executives who balked at making the movie.


'Lady in the Water'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some frightening sequences

A Warner Bros. Release. Writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Producer Sam Mercer. Director of photography Christopher Doyle. Editor Barbara Tulliver. Costume designer Betsy Heimann. Music James Newton Howard. Production designer Martin Childs. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

In general release.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World