With LADY IN THE WATER, M. Night Shyamalan wanted to achieve two things. He wanted to find the magic that exists in daily life if we only had the wit to see it, and he wanted to get even with the film reviewers that didn’t like his last film. Or couple of films. In the former he failed miserably, in the second, by having the film’s resident critic face off with a nasty and murderous creature, he succeeded, but it was a Pyrrhic victory at best.
It is the tale of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the stuttering and much put-upon caretaker of a gently decaying apartment complex called The Cove. Shyamalan uses the painfully obvious, not to mention clunky, device of having Heep show a new tenant around the building as a way of introducing the audience to the assorted characters who live there. A scantily clad college student, an eccentric cat lady, a recluse surrounded by books and television that is never turned off, a crossword puzzle fanatic and his precocious son, the slackers camped out amid smoke and endless chatter about nothing at all, and a body builder who only develops the right side of his body. The new tenant (Bob Balaban) is a futzy guy who has just moved to Philadelphia, where all Shyamalan’s movies are set, to review books and films for the local paper. He’s snarky as he deconstructs plotlines and bemoans the lack of any true originality in modern storytelling. This is supposed to be clever, but considering that Shyamalan has, among his many other gaffes, given away the entire mystery of what happens next in a remedial animation sequence that starts the film, there is, instead, an irony that would be piquant if it weren’t so blatantly unintentional.
One night, after a hard day of dealing with the big hairy bug in one unit as the terrified family looks on, and facing the pool cleaner who has serious issues about what he’s finding in the drain, something odd happens to Heep. Attempting to discover who it is that’s been sneaking into the complex’s pool after hours, he is confronted with a pale and comely girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) who saves his life when he throws all rules of pool etiquette to the wind and runs on the wet cement thereby falling and cracking his head. When he comes to, she is sitting there wearing only one of his shirts and a blank expression. She tells him that she is terrified, an emotion she chooses to express, as with all other emotions in the film, with a glassy stare and the body language of a piece of garden statuary. Perhaps this is to clue us in that she is a magical creature, though the intro has already spoiled the joy of discovering that as the film progresses.
One thing leads to another, at a glacial pace, and Heep discovers that she is something called a Narf. Fortunately for everyone concerned, the one person in the whole world who can explain the further implications of what that is lives right there at The Cove. She doesn’t speak English, but her daughter, the college co-ed, does and so, in what consistently fail to be humorous interludes, Heep learns the legend of the Narf bit by bit in translations peppered with the dynamics of a less than ideal mother-daughter relationship.
This is a rambling mess that takes 110 minutes and an obscene amount of money all to let Shyamalan live out a revenge fantasy and to obsess over Howard’s legs, which are featured prominently and over which he pans with a carefulness that smacks of fetishism. It’s not enough that the internal logic never kicks in, nor that the performances are perfunctory, with even Giamatti and his considerable gifts struggling to make Heep lovable instead of annoying, no, Shyamalan goes the extra mile and makes the screenplay not so much a blueprint for action as an exercise in exposition from start to finish. He doesn’t just explain things, he explains them over and over again until the audience has gone from losing interest in anything that transpires to being actively peeved. And as the piece de resistance, he has cast himself as one of the tenants, proving that whatever the relative merits of his talents behind the camera, they are genius in comparison to what he does in front of it. He even makes the cheesy special effects look good.
LADY IN THE WATER is in the running for worst film of the year, which is a shame all by itself, but it was made by someone who has gone from genuinely talented (as that gem WIDE AWAKE demonstrated) to petulant, throwing his temper tantrums on the big screen for all to see.