|Lady in the Water (2006)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Freddy Rodriguez, Cindy Cheung
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan is sure to receive a flurry of bad marks for his latest thriller, “Lady in the Water,” especially since the writer/director (whose last film, “The Village,” didn’t score so well with critics) has decided to snap back by killing a wiseass movie reviewer in the film’s third act. As a critic myself, I found the whole thing quite entertaining, but something tells me that the more high-profile writers won’t be nearly as forgiving. Heck, many will probably think the guy is out of his fucking mind for writing such an off-the-wall script, but for the select few that are able to suspend their imaginations for two hours, “Lady in the Water” stands as one of Shyamalan’s best films to date.
Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heap, the stuttering superintendent of a second-rate apartment complex called The Cove, but when a mysterious, half-naked girl saves him one night from drowning in the community pool, Cleveland’s world is suddenly turned upside down. The girl also happens to be the Lady of the title, a narf (or sea nymph) named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who's been assigned by the inhabitants of her Blue World to track down and inspire a writer (Shyamalan) whose book-in-progress will influence the rise of an important world leader. Of course, not everything always goes as planned, and though Story manages to meet the writer fairly early in the film, a wolf-like beast (referred to here as a scrunt) stands in her way.
Unable to figure out why the scrunt has gone rogue (since law states that a narf cannot be attacked after fulfilling her mission), Cleveland seeks out a more thorough translation of the East Asian bedside story (on which the tale is based) and discovers there are other tenants living within the community with unknown special powers. Including a crossword-puzzle enthusiast (Jeffrey Wright), an animal-loving widow (Mary Beth Hurt), a group of slacker friends (including Jared Harris) and my personal favorite, a guy who only works out one side of his body (Freddie Rodriguez), the tenants are slowly drawn into the fantastical events of Story’s world with one purpose: help her get back home.
This is the most flawed part of Shyamalan’s script, since there’s little chance that all of the characters would be so foolish to believe everything Cleveland is telling them, but then again, it’s all part of the experience. Despite the scary monster, this has children’s tale written all over it, and unless you’re ready to succumb to a temporary state of ignorance, you’ll find it’s very hard to enjoy the flick without constantly inquiring how objects from the extraordinary can interact with those from the ordinary. The movie even looks like a children’s book, thanks most in part to Christopher Doyle’s brilliant work behind the camera, but it’s the film’s cast that ultimately seals the deal.
Perhaps this is why Giamatti was cast in the main lead. He’s simply impeccable as the good-natured Cleveland, showcasing his talent as one of few actors who can pull off both dramatic and comedic performances in the same role. Equally impressive is director Shyamalan as the film’s third biggest lead, and though he’s appeared in his own movies before, the role has never been this prominent. Playing the so-called savior of humankind may seem a bit kitschy for a guy who’s not even considered the “It” director anymore, but he does a great job with it nonetheless. Both Howard and Wright, however, are horribly underused, while Rodriguez’s oddly enchanting character doesn’t get his due until the film’s final moments; and even then he's screwed out of some great opportunities.
My only regret is that “Lady in the Water” didn’t turn out more like “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” with the apartment tenants really using special powers to defeat the monster. Seriously, how could you feature a wacky character with a giant muscle arm, and not have a scene of him punching the beast in the face? Come on, Night, if you’re really going for funny this time around, then be sure to make the best of all your comedic moments. It’s the least you can do to make up for the lack of a twist ending, which, apparently, every one of your movies has to have in order to get the thumbs up from critics, right? Not really, since there’s still plenty of surprises along the way that make for a more enjoyable mystery, and that’s all that really matters. Now, please don’t kill me.
The single-disc release of “Lady in the Water” doesn’t quite capitalize on its potential to convince non-believers that this really is one of the director’s better films. Unfortunately, the only quality bonus feature is the six-part making-of, “Reflections of ‘Lady in the Water’.” The rest of the DVD is filled with junk like “Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story” (a five-minute plug for Shyamalan’s children’s book), a short audition mix tape, a very unfunny gag reel, and about five minutes worth of worthless deleted scenes.