Narfs, scrunts and tartutics, Oh my!
M. Night Shyamalan completes his descent into utter solipsism with "Lady in the Water," a sour fairy tale that sets out to be about the value of community and magic, but ends up as the director's somber celebration of himself.
Based to some minimal degree on a bedtime story the "Sixth Sense" director used to tell his daughters, "Lady in the Water" focuses on Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the stuttering, unassuming manager of an apartment complex. Cleveland's life changes when he happens upon the mysterious Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming in his building's pool. He soon discovers that she's a narf, an otherworldly being, visiting our world. She's on a mission of inspiration, but protecting the fragile narf from the nefarious scrunts (shoddy CGI grass monsters) and returning her to her world is going to take the collective talents of the complex's residents -- a clan that includes a slew of fantastic actors (including Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Bob Balaban, Jared Harris and Mary Beth Hurt), left to flounder without character or purpose.
Shyamalan can never decide whether he wants viewers to accept the on-screen events on faith or if they're going to need everything over-explained. Unfortunately, he spends much too much time on the latter. An unbearable amount of exposition is delivered through the problematic character of Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), a Korean college student who dresses like a hootchie and lives with her mother, an embarrassing ethnic caricature who speaks no English, but knows everything there is to know about narfs, scrunts and the whole mess. The mother helpfully remembers new details about the myth whenever the main English-speaking characters run out of ideas. The mother's Ancient Oriental Wisdom is countered by Balaban's pedantic film critic, a character who provides obstacles by constantly misinterpreting the world around him. It's one thing to use a critic as comic relief in a movie -- heck, we're funny people -- but the ego-driven Shyamalan has a very specific and unpleasant point about what happens to foolish scribes who can't understand his carefully-woven worlds.
Even if the storytelling weren't clunky, Shyamalan manages to undermine the entire story by casting himself in what is probably the film's third lead. He plays a very serious author, working on a book that he fears will be too difficult for the world to appreciate. He's reassured that his text will change the world. Once Shyamalan -- who can't begin to hold the screen opposite confident pros Howard and Giamatti -- puts himself in this pivotal part, it's tough not to read the entire movie as the hopeful meditation of a wannabe artist wondering when he'll finally be recognized for his genius. That self-centered viewpoint is exactly the opposite message from the spine of the plot, which involves the importance of collaboration.
When he was first making his mark, Shyamalan's use of his Philadelphia hometown was one of his most distinctive traits -- both "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" work because they involve unbelievable situations taking place in a very real urban environment. With "Signs" and "The Village," though, the director's eye for how location and how environment can inform characters and story has grown fuzzier. Even accepting the Anywhereland fairy tale trappings, the "Lady" apartment is totally anonymous, a generic set that gives the actors nothing to play off of.
Lensed by the often innovative Christopher Doyle, "Lady in the Water" is a murky film, visually monotonous, though some images resonate in an Edward Gorey way. It's probably both too dark and too talky to offer much interest for children and even adults who get sucked into this universe will probably tune out by the time a group of CGI blobs battle to a predictably lackluster climax. If "The Village" didn't do the trick, expect "Water" to drain the last good faith from Shyamalan's well.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun