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Lady in the Water

The fantastical Lady in the Water—M. Night Shyamalan"s most wildly imaginative yet obscure work to date—will probably disappoint those looking for that certain Shyamalan je n"sais quoi. Still, you can"t fault the guy for being a true original.


A "bedtime story" is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course, a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he"d told his kids, which began with "Did you know that someone lives under our pool?" and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a lowly superintendent for an apartment building, who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a mysterious nymph-like "narf," living in the pool. She"s there to complete a task and now that it"s done, she needs to go home, back to the Blue World. But that"s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there"s a ferocious beast called a "scrunt" lurking in the grass around the pool, waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now, Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story"s plight—must help her escape to freedom.


Thank god for Sideways. Without it, Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland, a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It"s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard, on the other hand, who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village, doesn"t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO"s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic, I"m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother, the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There"s never a dull moment with this crew around.


In a way, M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy, having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort, The Village, left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately, he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is, he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds, on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality, who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine, human emotions. So maybe this time around, he"s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans, who simply revel in the way his mind works, no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan"s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe, where things like "scrunts" and the "Tartutic" (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and "Madam Narfs" interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World, then maybe it"d be easier to swallow. But that"s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It"s as if with Lady in the Water, he"s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories, who then, in turn, tell the stories to their kids.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.