A custodian at the "The Cove" apartment building, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, regressing back to his old, tiring acting tics I thought were gone for good) lives a quiet life of routine and solitude. One fateful evening, Cleveland encounters a "narf" (think a less bitchin' mermaid) named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who clings to the distant man looking for protection. A character from a little known bedtime tale, Story searches for help to get back to her mysterious home, forcing Cleveland to turn to his fellow residents (including Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, and Jared Harris) for assistance in deciphering the codes Story can't crack and stop the vicious, fantastical creatures that have been sent to kill the narf.
A common complaint lobbed toward writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is his often shameless display of ego. Clearly his films have demonstrated a uniqueness and patience that tower over many lesser offerings, and the loner attitude of his productions, regardless of their artistic success rate, is something to be celebrated. "Lady in the Water," however, crosses a new line for Shyamalan: contempt for his audience.
The concept for "Lady" as being a newfangled take on age-old bedtime stories is dripping with possibilities for pure Shyamalan mythmaking the director hasn't explored since 2000's frustrating "Unbreakable." Utilizing his relaxed and deliberate style of filmmaking, the director sinks his talons into the audience early, setting up the mystery between Cleveland and Story with perfect shades of magic and confusion, allowing the viewer the pleasure of standing back and marveling at this impossible situation.
For a good 2/3 of the picture, Shyamalan had me with this extended, but cautiously measured trip into fantasyland. The blizzard of terms like "narf" and "scrunt" certainly can get overwhelming and if there's one thing that defines this director, it would be his complete unwillingness to explain anything he's up to in respectful detail; but to take it all in at once lends a magic to "Lady" that it might not otherwise have. The viewer is pushed forcefully into this tale, and the fun lies in trying to drink in the storybook details before it comes time to pay it all off.
This is where Shyamalan bungles the whole film.
It isn't that the director has cast himself again in a crucial supporting role, though the fact that Shyamalan has more screentime than Howard is cause for great concern (she can act circles around the amateurish director). I'll also temper my concern over the film's marketing, which labels the film a bedtime story, but is far more violent and dark than any kid under 13 should see. No, my central objection is bent more toward the obvious.
In what can only be considered a dig at his most vocal detractors, Shyamalan has written one of the apartment dwellers to be an uptight, blowhard film critic, who Cleveland seeks to help point out the clichés in the narf story to best attack the overall situation. At first, it's cute and makes an obvious point, but the filmmaker doesn't stop there. Shyamalan eventually halts the movie completely to blast the very notion of film criticism, taking precious screen time away from Cleveland and Story to make certain the audience understands the vileness and pointlessness of the profession. Rob Zombie pulled the same stunt in last year's "Devil's Rejects," but did so with wit and speed that didn't leave a skid mark. Here, Shyamalan seeks to destroy his bitter enemy.
By including this pointless, self-serving aside, and then paying so much attention to it, Shyamalan breaks the spell he was casting, and the film soon stumbles into repetition and lifelessness, eventually leading to a scarily unremarkable conclusion that doesn't earn any awe or fantasy splendor it was looking to invoke.
If Shyamalan wants to slap around film critics, hey, fine by me; but to sacrifice your entire film to do so reeks of a director who could stand to hear a little more "no" in his life.
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