Is it possible for a film to be cheesy and interesting all at once? That's the question posed by M. Night Shyamalan
's latest effort, Lady in the Water, a film that manages to throw in enough twists and turns to keep you engaged until the last schmaltzy drop.
The film begins, appropriately enough, with a fable. A cave-painting style animation lays the groundwork for the fairy tale that's about to play out in a sleepy apartment complex called The Cove. After this ultimately unnecessary introduction, we meet Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti
), caretaker of the complex, and a gaggle of eccentric residents. One night Cleveland spies someone in the residential pool who isn't supposed to be there. Slipping and falling in, he's saved from drowning by the mysterious stranger, a young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard
). Like its heart, the film wears its post-modernism on its sleeve. Article continues below
Through a legend meted out in fits and starts by an elderly, vaguely stereotypical Chinese woman and her daughter, Cleveland learns that this woman is, in fact, a narf, which is not, as one might suspect, some kind of undercover DEA pixie, but is instead a water nymph meant to bring great change and awakening and yadda, yadda, yadda. But before you can say "ancient Chinese secret," Cleveland finds out that there are monsters in this legend, as well, and must spend the rest of the film trying to negotiate safe passage home for Story by enlisting help from the motley tenants.
Finding out who these helpers are and just how they will help is part of the fun and frustration of the film. Although Shyamalan manages to find neat and clever ways to fit them into his puzzle, the puzzle itself seems to be manufactured as the film progresses. Every ten or fifteen minutes, the plot stops so that the woman and her daughter can, in often clumsy exposition, reveal another part of the myth that they inexplicably left out before. A game like this is much less fun if it seems like the rules are just being made up as you go along.
At the same time, the elements that make for any good Shyamalan film are here. There are very few directors (Spielberg
among them) who virtually shot for shot find the most interesting place to put the camera, and Shyamalan is one. He also knows how to cast a film, and Giamatti's performance here ranks easily with Willis
' in The Sixth Sense or Gibson
's in Signs. In what should be one of the film's most saccharine moments, he delivers a nearly tear-worthy speech.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the cheese. Being a fairy tale, Lady in the Water is susceptible to moments of artifice, and with lines like "The great Elon is coming," it can be hard not to chuckle. On the other hand, writers like Joss Whedon manage to bring the fanciful into the modern without taking the viewer out of the moment (and it would be very interesting to see him write and Shyamalan direct a project like this).
There is maybe half of a great film here. In many ways, this is Shyamalan's Close Encounters, in which in an ordinary man discovers he's living in an extraordinary world. And many of the themes of faith, purpose, and self-discovery explored in Signs and The Sixth Sense are all touched upon here, but are posited in a far less convincing way. Lady in the Water is not without its magical moments, but you really have to want them.