Oh, but it's a troubled world we live in. Our long-lost neighbors from beneath the seas ... apparently a wiser and more peaceful lot ... keep trying to guide us toward betterment, sending emissaries whom we ignore. In writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's contemporary fairy tale The Lady in the Water, one of these aquatic facilitators finally catches our ear.
The watery guide appears in the pool at a U-shaped suburban Philadelphia apartment complex called The Cove (Get it? Where the sea meets the land and forms an arc-shaped shelter?). The building's custodian, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a good-hearted sack of emotionally damaged goods, rescues a gorgeous girl-like creature from the pool. This is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a "narf" from the "Blue World."
Despite her apt name, Story doesn't say much. Neither does one of the residents, a middle-aged, taciturn Korean woman who speaks no English. Yet, in the first of the film's many magic-killing missteps, it's through this woman ... tediously and sporadically translated by her daughter ... that we get the whole backstory of narfs, their missions, their mortal enemies (dog-like, lawn-bound creatures called "scrunts") and how with the right cooperation, knowledge can bridge our world and the realm of water.
Sure, it sounds dumb, but movies by their very nature ask us to suspend disbelief; we happily convert two-dimensional light into elaborate dramatic realities we can care about. As representational of real life as films can be, we also welcome the fantastic ... magical rings, unlikely creatures, illogical shifts in time and space. And Shyamalan has scored before (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs). But, there must be a good story (I don't mean the lovely and kind narf) told with finesse, and it's here that Lady stumbles.
Shyamalan says he adapted the script from a bedtime story he made up over a couple of weeks for his kids, and it sure feels like it. It's not that the basic idea is so bad ... fairy tales are meant to be simplistic ... but the narrative execution feels amateurish, from the characters' silly names to the stop-and-explain-some-more backstory. Shyamlan dresses up his child's tale in woefully predictable can't-we-all-get-along trappings, from background TVs set to war footage (hint, hint) to the veritable United Nations of residents representing at The Cove (all of whom live in some sketch-comedy version of an appropriate apartment ... Asian kitsch, bookish elder, Miami retiree).
As a fable about folks coming together in a joint mission, it's heavy with clichés, while splashed up with some New Age-ish mumbo jumbo from beyond the waves. We eventually meet about two dozen Covers, and gosh darn it if they don't all "find their purpose," even the stoners, the kvetching housewife and the dude with weird arm. As an exploration of faith, the narrative would have been stronger if anybody at The Cove exhibited any disbelief and thus created any tension around the unreality. (In a pointless, self-indulgent aside, Lady suggests that the worst person on earth, incapable of opening his heart and believing, is a stuffy, snobby film critic.)
It's so obvious and earnest that I could believe this to be the product a recent graduate, not a seasoned filmmaker tackling his fifth potential blockbuster. Lady is watchable, even enjoyable in places, salvaged in part by strong performances from Giamatti and Howard (made over to appear extra-ethereal). Shyamalan casts himself in an embarrassingly significant role, but his flat performance shows that acting is surely the least of his abilities.
With a surfeit of characters, most of whom are defined by stereotypes or a singular trait (say, good with puzzles), it's hard to make any emotional connection to the story. Simply ask your heart to swell when the overwrought music does ... if you can stop laughing at this film's dreadful and CGI-intensive conclusion.
Lady is particularly frustrating because you can discern what Shyamalan was aiming for, and he deserves credit for at least trying to stretch Hollywood's narrow story-telling parameters. But where Lady hopes for magic, warm fellow-feeling and the embrace of our inner narf, what we're left with is a soggy fable marked by tortured explanations, narrative inconsistencies and a sappy hugs-in-the-rain ending.