As an ardent defender of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable" and "Signs" (but not "The Village," because that one stank), it pains me to dis "Lady in the Water." It's the sort of movie that is reasonably enjoyable to watch only until the end, when you realize you've been gypped -- not by some outrageous twist that renders the story ludicrous (as with "The Village"), but because there IS no twist, and this story that has appeared to be going somewhere is in fact going nowhere.
After an animated, narrated and truly pointless explanation of man's history with certainly mythological beings, the film gets right to its story, in which Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the stuttering superintendent at an apartment complex, finds a sea nymph, or "narf," in the swimming pool. Her name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). She is not allowed to tell Cleveland anything about her world or what she's doing here in ours, so he has to get clues from a tenant named Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), whose mother used to tell her a bedtime story about narfs (narves?). This story proves to be remarkably accurate vis-à-vis Story's actual circumstances, which makes me curious about the veracity of, say, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
Story's deal is that she is in our world to meet someone special, except she doesn't know who, only that he's written something. And once she's met him or her, she has to return to her own world without being attacked by the scrunt, a vicious dog-like creature that's been prowling the grass surrounding the pool whence Story came. She can do this with the aid of additional people who fill additional roles, and no, she doesn't know who they are, and no, she still can't talk about it. So it's kind of slow-going, developing-a-plan-of-action-wise.
Shyamalan has always been a confident (some say arrogant) director, and "Lady in the Water" is his most boldly peculiar film to date. He's so certain you'll be enthralled by his fanciful story that he doesn't bother to make it swallowable. All the talk of narfs and scrunts and suchlike is done without the slightest fear that we'll snicker. The film truly is funny at times, intentionally so; other times, I get the feeling I'm not supposed to be giggling even though I am.
Shyamalan does some nifty things with the story's structure, like using a snippy film critic character (Bob Balaban) to explain how a typical movie's plot works as a commentary on how the plot of "Lady in the Water" itself is working. And you smile and think, "Cute."
But the writer/director calls the movie a bedtime story, and I can see what he means: There are some Characters, and they face an Obstacle, and in the end they Overcome the Obstacle and All Live Happily Ever After. And that's it. That's the basic structure of most stories, of course, but most stories have a little meat on their bones, too, with characters learning and growing and so forth, and "Lady in the Water" gives those matters only a cursory glance. And not for nothin', but most bedtime stories aren't 98 minutes long, either. A pointless, charming little story is fine if it only lasts 10 minutes and is intended to amuse drowsy children.
It's a hit parade of Shyamalan's favorite themes -- crises of faith, loved ones' deaths, watery symbolism -- all hastily assembled without the innovation and passion that marked his first three major films. The movie certainly isn't boring, but when it's over you think: "Really? That was it?" Maybe that's the twist.