Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the superintendent at an apartment complex in Philadelphia, populated by a Spike Lee-esque collection of oddballs and caricatures. There's a widow who looks after stray animals, a man who only pumps iron with one side of his body, a crossword obsessed Father with his oh-so-unusual son, and more besides. All these people have a common purpose yet to be revealed to them, but once the permanently soaked (and flipping gorgeous) Bryce Dallas Howard appears things take a turn for the fantastic. She lives in the pool, and it turns out that she's just one of many pieces in an overly-intricate and frankly ludicrous fairy tale.
The mythos behind Lady in the Water is quite simply the daftest thing imaginable. Director M. Night Shyamalan apparently constructed the tale as a bedtime story for his children and its obvious early on that it should have stayed that way, or perhaps been made strictly as a children's film. Clearly Shyamalan feels that adults are happy to put up with the sort of plot that would feel more at home in an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon.
The annoyingly named 'Story' (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a 'Narf', an acquatic creature from the 'Blue World' - i.e. the water (water of course not actually being blue). She is hunted by a Scrunt, a wolf-like land being. The Scrunt can only be seen by looking over your shoulder with a mirror, and can only appear when no-one is looking at it, although this was unclear since it also appeared in full view to some people. It also takes some nights of the week off, since Story believes she will be safe at some times, and not others. There is also a race of monkey creatures called the Tartutic who enforce the stupid rules of this whole thing, and live in the trees. The Narf is stuck in the pool and needs to be retrieved by a giant Eagle, possibly called the Eaglon but I was past caring at this point.
And that silly mess is just the least of it. It gets worse when you consider that the people of the apartment complex all form part of an elaborate prophecy designed to return the Narf - who is more than just your garden variety Narf - to the Blue World. One group forms 'the Guild', one person is 'the Healer', there is a 'Man With No Secrets', 'the Seven Sisters' and so on, and on, and on. Just when you think the plot will stop, we are delivered another shovel-load of drippy mythology. Worst of all is that Shyamalan - in an ego-trip to beat all comers - is revealed by the prophetic Story as being the author of a book which will inspire the man who will save humanity. I was rubbing my chin so hard at this point that I actually summoned a very confused Jimmy Hill in a puff of smoke.
Of course, a complex and imaginative plot is all well and good when it is allowed to develop naturally, and when it makes sense. But here Shyamalan has burdened himself with the task of explaining to the audience something so convoluted that he has to resort to that most hated of film-making devices - the Magical Character of Infinite Exposition. In this case, as in so many, it's an old Chinese person. For some reason, the Far East has been lumbered with explaning the mystical in films from 'Gremlins' to 'Big Trouble in Little China', to this. And the sheer volume of exposition is the films most telling fault.
The dialogue, too, is an odd mixture that never seems to completely settle. As with all his films, Shyamalan expects his actors to deliver lumpen and sickly lines with either emotionless faces, or through a flood of tears. As a true testament to the ability of Paul Giamatti, he comes out of this mess practically unscathed. If the rumours that Kevin Costner was initially to play the lead are true, then Giamatti is the true saviour of the world, since this film would have been utterly nightmarish had Costner been retained.
And yet in spite of all the bad, there actually is some good. There are some very, very funny moments in this film and there are some interesting scenes. The stoners who try to come up with a new catchphrase ( "Blim-Blam" being one of their offerings), the child who reads the prophecy in the images on a cereal box, and Bob Balaban in a nifty turn as an embittered film critic (Oh M. Night, what won't you do?) who is, of course, savaged by a Skrunk.
I cannot recommend this film, although it does offer something of interest. It's a vision of a career in free-fall, of a confused young director who presumably thought he could do no wrong. It's also unlike most other films in that it has a unique character that you can't quite put your finger on. It's such an odd experience that I honestly didn't know what to make of it until some time later.
Quite what this film will mean for the future of M. Night Shyamalan is unclear. I am hard pressed to think of many other directors of his age whose name precedes the title of his pictures - Tarantino is about it. Yet after this, it might be Warner Brothers policy to promote all his films as Alan Smithee productions. Just how far off the shore does the floundering M. Night finds himself? Dumped by Disney, savaged in the press, and now producing films that look like suicidal cries for help. Someone needs to dive in and save Shyamalan from himself.
PS - has anyone else noticed that the picture below is surely of Rowan Atkinson?
Indian-born, American-raised writer and director, whose forte is taking cliched fantasy stories and reinventing them with low-key treatment, usually with a child at the heart of them. After gentle comedy Wide Awake, he hit the big time with supernatural drama The Sixth Sense. Superhero tale Unbreakable was also successful, as was the religious alien invasion parable Signs. Shyamalan's mystery drama The Village was seen as ploughing the same furrow for too long by some, and his fantasies Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth (which he didn't conceive the plot for) were met with near-universal derision. On a lower budget, he made The Visit, which was cautiously received as a partial return to form, and Split, which was his biggest hit in some time. He also co-wrote Stuart Little.