Lady in the Water, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When you consider a modern day fairy tale, no matter how twisted, ideal descriptions include "enchanting," "engaging," and "magical." They do not include "silly," "ridiculous," and "laughable." Unfortunately, in the case of Lady in the Water, the latter group of adjectives is the one that applies. This is the biggest misfire of M. Night Shyamalan's career, including his pre-Sixth Sense movies. In addition to being dull and uninvolving, the film fails to draw in the viewer sufficiently to facilitate suspension of disbelief, which allows the plot to resemble a rejected Ed Wood screenplay. For those who though Shyamalan was stretching and not playing fair in The Village, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Lady in the Water starts out like an average mermaid movie, with apartment superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) discovering a female creature splashing around in the complex's swimming pool. (This is unlike any pool I'm familiar with. A drain in the well leads not to pipes but to a complex underwater cave system. But I digress…) Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) is her name, and she's not actually a mermaid (no tail) but a naiad. Warning: silly nomenclature follows. Story is from The Blue World, and is a member of a race called narfs (rhymes with barfs). She has come to human lands to provide enlightenment to one man, after which she must return home. During her stay, she is pursued by the Scrunt, a wolf like creature that camouflages itself as the lawn. (Good thing it isn't mowing day.) The Scrunt wants to attack Story and inject her with its poisonous Kii, although why it doesn't gobble her down whole or rend her to pieces is a mystery. Then there's the Tartutic - a trio of monkeys having bad hair days - that represents the only power capable of stopping the Scrunt.

On one level, I suppose one could consider this to be a love story between sadsack Cleveland (whose backstory tells us his wife and children were victims of a multiple murderer) and anemic Story. It doesn't matter that there's no discernable chemistry between them, because conventional romance is not on Shymalan's agenda. He just wants to get an Oscar nominated actor to say words like "narf," "scrunt," and "tartutic." The film solves the problem of PG-13 nudity by showing only Story's feet when she's naked. There's more skin in this year's other aquawoman feature, Aquamarine. (It pains me to admit that the earlier tween-centric movie offers better entertainment value.)

The movie deviates in a big way from previous Shyamalan scripts in that it offers no twists, unless you count several minor misdirections. Another change is that, for this outing, Shyamalan gives himself a significant on-screen presence rather than just a walk-on cameo. His performance is a little wooden, but that didn't bother him in Praying with Anger and it doesn't bother him here. He has surrounded himself with an interesting supporting cast but no one gets enough screen time to make an impression.

For the most part, the dialogue is embarrassing. It's also difficult to determine how much of the film's humor is intentional and how much is unplanned. Maybe all the bad lines and funny words are supposed to be funny (in a campy way). Certainly, the Asian grandmother's "story," as told through her interpreter daughter (Cindy Cheung), isn't supposed to be taken seriously. Then there are a couple of brilliant, Scream-inspired sequences with Bob Balaban playing a film critic. These are obviously comedic and they provoke the intended reaction. For the most part, however, Lady in the Water comes across as a movie that's too bad to be good, and not bad enough to be so bad that it's good.

There's probably a cult following that's going to love the film, and laud its spiritual overtones and none-too-subtle redemption motif. To me, however, it felt silly and artificial. When a filmmaker tells a story that transports the audience into an alternate reality, his first objective must be to get the viewers to believe in this world. Shyamalan doesn't do that. He assumes we'll accept it, and that mistake sinks the movie. Not having bought into the story, we spend nearly two hours making fun of the grass-backed wolf, the shocked monkeys, and a bunch of other missteps. This is sloppy filmmaking, and it's likely to wipe away whatever luster still remains to Shyamalan's reputation following his unexpected (and, in my view, undeserved) success with The Sixth Sense. In the summer box office pool, expect this movie to take on water faster than Titanic.

Lady in the Water, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2006-07-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1