A petulant assertion of its creator’s messianic greatness, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water may not be quite as awful as 2004’s The Village, but this mind-bogglingly convoluted batch of children’s fable gobbledygook certainly qualifies as stunning narcissistic self-exposure from a filmmaker blind to his own escalating failings as a storyteller. In place of the trademark concluding twists that have defined his progressively unrewarding output, Shyamalan here replaces such gimmickry with sheer, unadulterated egomania. It’s a quantity in abundant supply, oozing from not only the director’s decision to cast himself as a writer whose prose has the potential to change the world (and who’s doomed to die a martyr for his ahead-of-their-time ideas), but also from his arrogant belief that carelessly tying together an un-fantastical fantasy narrative with elaborate rules and nonsensical terms like narf, scrunt and Heep – Oh My! – would somehow be enough to generate any genuine spiritual/humanist magic. To put it bluntly: It’s not.
The film’s tale is a tortuously involved affair involving a “narf” (i.e. a supernatural, fortune-telling sea nymph) named Story (a blankly translucent Bryce Dallas Howard) who shows up in the swimming pool of a Pennsylvania apartment complex called The Cove run by Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a withdrawn stutterer who harbors a tragic secret. The narf – who is being hunted by ferocious grass-haired “scrunts” that are disobeying the laws set forth by the tree-dwelling “tartutics” (don’t ask) – has arrived to share a glance with Shyamalan’s Vick Ran and, in doing so, unclog his writer’s block so that he might pen his important pontifications, though a secondary objective involves inspiring the building’s alienated inhabitants to realize that every life has value, that strength comes from collective togetherness, and that there are cosmic forces greater than ourselves. It’s a parable full of hogwash, albeit hogwash that Shyamalan has sincere faith in, a fact made clear by the earnestness of his script, the lovingly gentle cinematography of Christopher Doyle (which largely eschews the director’s typical long tracking shots), and the care with which he treats Giamatti’s superbly sympathetic performance as the desperate-to-believe Heep.
Yet the gallons of laughable nonsense peddled by Lady in the Water is impossibly tough to swallow without gagging, beginning with its fundamentally suspense-free plot construction (in which Heep runs from apartment to apartment like an everyman Robert Langdon trying to crack the muddled myth’s code) and character development shortcuts (such as Cove residents buying the entire narf legend hook, line and sinker while barely batting an eye), to more exasperating missteps like giving his human protagonist an unremarked-upon ability to indefinitely hold his breath underwater, employing hoary Gremlins-style Asian stereotypes, and, finally, inflicting violent punishment against snobbish – and, more importantly, wrongheaded – film critic Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), the last of which comes off as the unbecoming byproduct of the director’s insecurities. Shyamalan valiantly struggles to infuse his soggy saga’s final note of communal altruism with some transcendent enchantment. But with the director’s own self-importance hopelessly drowning out his characters’ noble selflessness, Lady in the Water becomes a case study of an increasingly defensive filmmaker falling off the auteurist deep end.