Vindication is rarely as swift or complete as that likely awaiting the Disney execs who passed on M. Night Shyamalan’s latest effort “Lady in the Water.” After Disney balked, the director carted the project to Burbank neighbor Warner Bros., then lambasted his former studio for a lack of vision in a tie-in, tell-some book. Disney’s misgivings were well founded, as Shyamalan has followed “The Village” with another disappointment — a ponderous, self-indulgent bedtime tale. Awkwardly positioned, this gloomy gothic fantasy falls well short of horror, leaving grim theatrical prospects beyond whatever curiosity the filmmaker’s reputation and the mini-controversy can scare up.
Although Shyamalan indicates in the storybook-style animated opening sequence that the story is derived from ancient myth, his perplexing creation stimulates a nagging sense that he’s simply making it up as he goes along. (This is apparently the case, as the production notes say the idea “began as an impromptu bedtime story for his two young daughters.”)
Among their complaints, Disney execs reportedly warned Shyamalan about presenting a clueless film critic as a supporting player, though compared with the pic’s other transgressions, that one is harmless. The character appears designed to exact a measure of revenge against those who slighted “The Village” and to inoculate “Lady in the Water” against whatever barbs are hurled its way.
That rather gratuitous plot point, however, coupled with the writer-director-producer’s expansion of his traditional Hitchcockian cameos into a pivotal role, does flavor the film with a distracting hint of self-absorption.
If Shyamalan’s earlier works hinged on a clever twist or big surprise (think “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” and, less successfully, “The Village”), “Lady” telegraphs its intentions from the outset.
The lady in question, Story (“Village” star Bryce Dallas Howard), is a “Narf” — a sea nymph from The Blue World who has taken up residence in the swimming pool of the Cove apartments, which no one will confuse with “Melrose Place.”
The complex is home to an eclectic group of misfits, beginning with Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), its emotionally wounded superintendent, who discovers Story and takes it upon himself to help the naked nymph fulfill her mission and return home, a task that will require the aid of various tenants. Throughout, she’s in danger of attack by another Blue World visitor, the Scrunt, a werewolf-like creature that bears a passing resemblance to the “beasts” in “The Village.”
Story is alternately fearful and full of other-worldly serenity, forcing Cleveland to elicit clues regarding the myth and how best to assist her from Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), whose Korean-speaking mother is well versed in Narf lore. Others helping decipher the scheme include the aforementioned critic (Bob Balaban); a would-be writer (Shyamalan) and his sister (Sarita Choudhury); and a wordsmith (Jeffrey Wright) who excels at crossword puzzles.
Shyamalan’s script is its own kind of puzzle, albeit one that never connects and generally handcuffs the large cast. Giamatti is appropriately schlubby and dour as the Everyman thrust into the organizing role, while Howard can never get much beyond a vacant, beatific stare. Only Cheung brings much vitality to the proceedings, and that’s by jabbering away in fast-talking Pidgin English that’s mostly silly but to some might border on offensive.
Nor does it help that Balaban’s arrogant critic keeps discussing movie conventions and cliches in a film that builds toward an unsatisfying and abrupt climax. Reminding the audience where movies fall flat hardly seems advisable.
Tech credits similarly fail to impress, including the fleetingly glimpsed creature effects, which, given the marginal level of suspense, hardly seem to justify a PG-13 rating.
What’s most acutely lacking, though, is magic equal to the movie’s fairy-tale underpinnings — starting with the enticing, childlike notion of something mysterious living in the swimming pool. Establishing a sense of fantasy, beyond James Newton Howard’s hard-working score, might help people accept that a sort-of mermaid has moved in next door.
Instead, much of the action is confined to Story taking refuge in Cleveland’s depressing flat, and the narrative proves a bit too intense for younger tykes yet neither exciting nor engaging enough to galvanize adults.
By publicly harpooning Disney, Shyamalan has rendered a kind of service — illustrating how filmmakers can lose perspective on passion projects. Whatever the rationale behind the criticism, however, after using “Lady in the Water” to tuck in the kids, it should have been tucked away.