Lady in the Water (Warner Bros.) marks M. Night Shyamalan’s official leap off the deep end. Not everyone agrees on Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker, but few, up till now, have questioned his sanity. Two earlier films, The Sixth Sense and The Village, were cleverly constructed, airtight allegorical worlds that turned neatly inside out at the end to become different worlds, while Signs was a somber exploration of what might happen if one well-known brand of occult craziness—the kind involving aliens, crop circles, and tinfoil hats—turned out to be, in fact, justified.
Lady in the Water dispenses with allegory altogether. It invents its own occult craziness out of whole cloth, justification be damned, and puts it right out there. Shyamalan is no longer asking anyone’s permission to be weird, and there’s something exhilarating in that. The bad news is that he may have traveled so deep into his own brain that only his nearest and dearest (this movie was based on a bedtime story the director made up for his daughters) care to follow where he’s going anymore.
Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep (one of the great character names in recent memory), a building superintendent at a Philadelphia apartment complex called the Cove. Heep is glum and awkward, with a serious stutter, but he takes his job seriously and runs his building with pride. When someone starts swimming in the pool after hours and leaving gobs of red hair tangled in the filter, Heep takes the infraction as a personal insult and vows to discover the offender. The night swimmer turns out to be not a tenant but a mysterious pre-Raphaelite beauty named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). After a night spent chastely sleeping in Heep’s arms, she tells him of her mission: She’s been sent from the “blue world” beneath the sea to serve as a kind of muse to someone, a writer, living at the Cove. It’s Heep’s job to locate that person, hook the two of them up for their metaphysical coffee date, and guide Story back to her underwater kingdom.
Heep, whose misanthropic manner suggests at least something of the skeptic, never for a moment doubts Story’s story. Might the naked chick in the pool be a drug addict? A mental patient? A grifter? No, she’s just a narf, a kind of mermaid with legs who eschews contractions (“I cannot tell you who I have been sent to find”) as she spins her otherworldly tale. Like any reasonable narf, Story lives in fear of the scrunt, a snarling, red-eyed beast made of plant material. Scrunts harbor an irrational grudge against narfs (or maybe just find them tasty), and there’s a particularly disgruntled scrunt lurking just outside Heep’s cottage apartment, waiting to tear Story limb from lovely limb if she ventures outside.
I don’t hold it against Shyamalan that his plot is completely preposterous, that his characters (except for Heep) are cardboard constructions in service of the story, or even that his ending traffics in glutinous New-Age clichés about owning your demons and embracing your inner child. I will hold against him that Lady in the Water isn’t scary, that its own inner logic breaks down at countless points along the way, and that its ending is disappointingly literal and just plain stupid. Lady in the Water is, however, funny at times, even intentionally so. Paul Giamatti is perfect as the nebbishy super; he invests the smallest moment with convincing bits of comic business (as when, waiting alone for another character, he engages in nervous finger-snapping). He’s even game for an underwater action sequence in which, the hair on his chubby back swaying like seaweed in the waves, he locates the narf’s underwater lair. Giamatti is every bit as craftsmanlike about playing Cleveland Heep as Heep is about running the Cove.
Shyamalan himself plays Vick Ran, a tenant who may be the writer Story seeks, and he’s assembled a genial cast of supporting players. Bob Balaban appears as a stuffy, self-important film critic who gets his comeuppance in a scene that is the director’s blatant flip-off to the critical establishment. The clown Bill Irwin does a spooky turn as a reclusive tenant who spends his days watching television coverage of an unnamed war, and Bryce Dallas Howard pulls off a serviceable narf—a role that, to be fair, consists mainly of looking good wet.
It’s too bad Shyamalan appears to have completely lost his marbles. He’s a canny, elegant director (if at times a clumsy, symbol-heavy screenwriter), and even at their worst, his films have a surety of touch—they may be hokey, but they’re defiantly themselves. The closed universe of the Cove complex (the camera never ventures outside the building’s walls) could have been a great setting for a Rear Window-like investigation of neighborliness gone awry. Instead, Lady in the Water is more like a desexualized remake of Splash: A pretty mermaid holes up in a nice guy’s apartment until he finally learns how to set her free. Just add an extra layer of mythical self-importance and one very angry scrunt.