Lady in the Water is a story originally conceived by Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan for his children. It’s a modern fairy tale about an unassuming building manager, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), who saves an ethereal young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) from danger only to discover that she a narf, a character from a bedtime story who is trying to make the perilous journey from our world back to hers. Heep and the tenants of the apartment complex work together to protect their new delicate friend from the scrunt, a deadly creature who is determined to prevent her from returning home.
The Lady in the Water is easily the oddest and most audacious film of the summer blockbuster season. Shyamalan is one of the most successful directors of the last decade, having huge hits with films like The Sixth Sense and Signs that were heavy on atmosphere and surprising plots twists but in Lady in the Lake he plays it straight, more or less. Don’t expect a twist at the end—the last Shyamalan film, The Village, was ruined for me because I spent the whole movie anticipating the twist and never connected with the plot—but the story isn’t exactly clear-cut.
The viewer is asked to follow a fable that unfolds slowly, and is filled unusual characters and strange mythology. It’s the soul of the movie and it will either work for you or it won’t. I thought the mythology was a bit too contrived, and a little bit too much like watching a long game of Dungeons and Dragons, complete with narfs, beasts, guilds, and healers. The intricate fable slows down the story, getting in the way of the moral—that people should consider their purpose on earth—and gets increasingly ludicrous as the movie plods along.
The main reason to watch is to see good actors doing good work. Paul Giamatti hands in another likeable performance that shows why he is one of the best actors working in mainstream movies today. Bryce Dallas Howard as the title character has a naturally brittle otherworldly look that works very well. In supporting roles Bob Balaban is amusing as an self-important film critic (is there any other kind?) who meets a nasty end—I’m sure Shyamalan enjoyed writing that part after the lambasting he took on his last film—and the director himself takes on his largest (and most ego stroking) part to date as a writer destined to become a prophet of sorts.
Lady in the Water is a frustrating movie. It’s not awful by any means, it has good performances and it looks beautiful, but it isn’t really successful either. What’s missing here is a strong hand in terms of interesting story telling. At it’s best it is a refreshing attempt to steer a summer blockbuster into more interesting ground, but at it’s worst does what all bedtime fables are supposed to do—put you to sleep.