M. Night Shyamalan had the misfortune to make a perfect third feature. The Sixth Sense was a supernatural horror movie so graceful as to transcend its genre: airtight in plot and style, with a surprise ending classic in its artful sleight-of-hand, featuring a superb cast led by Haley Joel Osment as the adorable little boy who "sees dead people" and Bruce Willis as the child psychologist with problems of his own. (Shyamalan's first two, Praying with Anger and Wide Awake, received little notice; I have never seen either.)
Although Shyamalan's subsequent career hasn't exactly been a Wellesian anticlimax, he has yet to match that first glorious success. Unbreakable had the same dark, insinuating mood as The Sixth Sense, but suffered from an insufficient payoff to its neo-Gothic plot. Signs had fine performances, hair-raising thrills and a notably moving final scene, but also at least one obtrusive plot contrivance, as well as an annoying, thudding score by Shyamalan's usual (and usually fine) composer, James Newton Howard.
Nevertheless, Shyamalan carved for himself an impressive niche as the delineator of the unseen things just below—or above—the surface of our lives, and as the cinematic advocate of the spiritual component in human life. That's why The Village, Shyamalan's sixth film, was a disappointment; when it turned out there was nothing at all supernatural about his tale of a backwoods Utopian community beset by monsters, the story simply ceased to be interesting. (Technically, however, The Village was impeccable; it had exquisite photography by Roger Deakins as well as a lovely performance by the ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard, who seems to be becoming Shyamalan's muse much as Grace Kelly was Alfred Hitchcock's.)
Shyamalan returns to the mystical side—but from another angle--with Lady in the Water, which unfortunately is his least successful film to date. It's obvious Shyamalan intends the movie to be both a stylistic stretch and a devastating riposte to his critics. Yet it leaves the overwhelming impression of an artist adopting a style about which he knows little and cares less. Imagine Hitchcock trying to be Steven Spielberg, or even wanting to be.
Lady in the Water begins simply, but soon becomes hopelessly convoluted. Cleveland Heep, an apartment house superintendent with a stutter and a tragic past, is confused by the mysterious swimmer who keeps invading the pool after hours. Soon enough the swimmer makes herself known; her name is Story, she seems totally helpless and lost, she identifies herself as a "narf" and lives in terror of something called "scrunts."
Moved to help Story, Heep seeks information from the tenants on what narfs are and where they come from. Finally, a bickering mother-daughter duo (June Kyoto Lu and Cindy Cheung, providing the film's sharpest comedy relief) give Heep the basics: narfs are water sprites who come to visit Earth in times of grave peril to assist the cause of good. Narfs are themselves imperiled by the evil, vulpine scrunts, and it is up to the people in Story's immediate vicinity—most of whom, it seems, were drawn magically to live where she appeared—to make sure she returns safely to her home.
So far, so good, and Shyamalan greatly enhances his film by casting the incomparable Paul Giamatti as Heep. The good news is that Giamatti—his performance almost Chaplinesque in its pathos and delicacy of feeling—alone is worth the price of admission to Lady in the Water. The bad news is that nothing else in the film is.
Although there's a decent amount of plot tension in Heep and the other characters trying to determine their places in Story's world, that part goes on too long, and finally becomes the bulk of the movie. As a result, for the first time in a Shyamalan movie, the characters themselves are shortchanged—criminally so, when you realize they are played by actors of the caliber of Bill Irwin and Jeffrey Wright. They and we discover their true roles only in the last few minutes, and thus we have no particular feelings about these unknown people who play their inexplicable protective roles because, you know, they're supposed to. Because of this, Shyamalan's point about the larger community of humankind and the basic human urge to do good is mostly buried. (The character of Story herself is underwritten; Bryce Dallas Howard, again Shyamalan's leading lady, has nothing to do except look frightened and otherworldly.)
Furthermore, Shyamalan has the gall to blame all the dithering on a character named Mr. Farber, a dull, humorless critic played, dully and humorlessly, by Bob Balaban. It's Mr. Farber, Shyamalan tells us, who is responsible for Heep and the others getting the tale wrong, because critics always get everything wrong. (Maybe the idea of using critic characters as whipping boys in bad movies will catch on. For the record, however, I have yet to receive any scripts from Michael Bay.)
Throughout the film, Shyamalan shows minimal inclination to make his fairy tale believable or engaging. The very names betray his boredom: "Cleveland Heep" sounds like a W.C. Fields reject; "narf" and "scrunt" sound like a bad Saturday-morning cartoon. Even worse, the film looks shabby, another dubious first for a Shyamalan movie. Shyamalan dilutes the terror by showing us his monsters plainly—a mistake he wisely avoided in Signs—and the monsters themselves are anything but impressive. The supposedly fearsome scrunts bear a close resemblance to the eponymous, bargain-basement creatures from Attack of the Killer Shrews; the "tartutics," mortal enemies of the scrunts who aid Story in her getaway, look like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz after a three-day bender.
Now that he's gotten a fantasy out of his system, I hope Shyamalan will go back to the supernatural horror he does better than anybody. And, with any luck, he will hire Giamatti again. But Lady in the Water raises fears that he is succumbing to a particularly pernicious form of directorial arrogance. "How arrogant is he?" you might ask. This arrogant: Story's vital mission on Earth, it turns out, is to encourage a struggling young writer to finish his book, which will influence future generations with its brilliance, humanity, and surefire prescriptions for world peace. That noble young literary genius, you will be glad to know, is played by an actor dear to the director's heart: M. Night Shyamalan.