It's always fun to watch an A-list Hollywood director slip off the rails, but M. Night Shyamalan may get his conductor's license revoked after Lady in the Water, his for-adults-only children's story about our need to - God, not that again - regain our lost innocence. By "adults-only," I don't mean to suggest that Lady in the Water is pornographic, although said Lady spends the entire movie with next to no clothes on. I mean that it would take an adult, preferably one with a Ph.D. in aquatic mythology, to figure out what's going on. The premise is simple enough: A narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) from The Blue World has arrived in our midst via the swimming-pool drain of a Philadelphia apartment complex, and she needs to impart her wisdom before returning from whence she came, hopefully without being eaten by a scrunt, which looks like a wolf in porcupine's clothing. Oh, and she needs to locate The Guardian, The Healer, The Interpreter, The Guild and...
Okay, maybe it's not so simple after all. And that makes sense, given that the movie began its life as a bedtime story with which Shyamalan lured his two daughters to Dreamland. That it had the same effect on yours truly shouldn't be construed as an endorsement of its otherworldly charms. The movie has almost no otherworldly charms, despite its debt to such early Spielberg classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial. Paul Giamatti is the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters, an ordinary guy who becomes the point man for a cross-cultural exchange. But he's also the Henry Thomas character in E.T., a kid with his very own space critter. Except she isn't from outer space, she's from the depths of the ocean. And she isn't a critter, she's a Pre-Raphaelite vision, with long, flowing red hair, cut-glass eyes and skin so milky and smooth that you're almost prepared to spend the whole movie just drinking it in.
Almost. Then she opens her mouth again. Apparently, they haven't heard of contractions in The Blue World, because Story - that's her name, don't wear it out - speaks only in wisdom-imparting formalese. "Your words are very beautiful," she tells Giamatti's Cleveland Heep. "Your heart is very big." And with a name like Cleveland Heep, he can't afford to pass up any compliments. But Shyamalan hasn't found a way to square the movie's highfalutin spiritual pretensions with the down-and-dirty need to entertain. In The Sixth Sense and Signs, his best movies so far, he grounded the New Age sentimentality in a recognizable reality. But in The Village, which felt like a "Twilight Zone" episode directed at Quakers and Shakers, he let his ideas run the show. And in Lady in the Water, he gets all bogged down in the rules and regulations governing interactions between "us" and "them." Way too much of the movie takes place on the metaphysical plane.
Meanwhile, down here on earth, Shyamalan has assembled an International Food Court of only-in-a-movie eccentrics - a Korean-American college student (Cindy Cheung) who breaks new ground in the use of pidgin English, a Latino body-builder (Freddy Rodríguez) who's only pumped up one side of his body, and Shyamalan himself as a writer whose uncompleted book, according to Story (and she would know), will change the world. Shyamalan may have something similar in mind for his movie, but it's hard to imagine Lady in the Water having much of an effect, either on the world or the box office. It's too boringly self-important, grasping at a Big Statement when it should be paying attention to all those little moments that go into the making of a successful movie. I knew we were in trouble when the scrunt first showed up and was about as scary as, well, a porcupine. Then the movie had to explain to us exactly what the scrunt was capable of, and under exactly what conditions.
"Oh, just eat somebody," I thought.