Review by Paul Stathakis | 2006

A bedtime story for all ages

“Lady in the Water” glistens with creativity and energy.  It is a bedtime story (as the ads inform), a bold experiment in storytelling, and M. Night Shyamalan’s gentlest film yet.  It has been a while since we’ve seen a filmmaker this deep into his own thoughts.  What we have here is the kid in Shyamalan.  We sense in every scene that he is fascinated by his own story: the mythology, the characters, and the dialogue.  It is like listening to a 10-year old boy describe a dream with excitement and sincerity.

The story is centered on a sea nymph (or narf) who turns to hotel handyman Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) who is also, in many ways, the caretaker of the lodge aptly named “The Cove.”  Like in his previous films, Shyamalan doesn’t keep viewers waiting for suspense. In the opening minutes, Cleveland is already inquiring about someone who takes late night swims in the hotel pool.  And it isn’t very long before a pool serviceman finds hair tangled in the filter.

Moments later, it’s nighttime and Cleveland is preparing to go to bed when he hears splashing in the pool.  We see splashes from his window but we’re just as curious and clueless as Cleveland who grabs a flashlight and decides to see just who is causing this disturbance.  Before we know it, Cleveland returns to his room with a mysterious woman.  She sits on his couch, naked.  Her name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) and she quickly informs Cleveland of her origins.  She refers to her home as a place calledthe blue world but she also claims that she cannot discuss it with anyone.  Clevelandis first hesitant and non-believing.  Who would believe such a person?  But as he begins to listen more to Story’s explanations and witnesses strange occurrences whenever he is around her, he begins to believe.  He has enough reasons to trust her.  In her presence his stuttering problem suddenly vanishes and he is able to speak in full sentences without having to interrupt himself.

Story is a sea nymph who must get back home safely, to her blue world, only it’s not as simple as it sounds.  Outside, in the grass, lurks an evil force that will try to prevent her from returning home and this monstrous creature also threatens to kill anyone who is not “The Guardian.”  I will stop there.  Needless to say, Cleveland is mesmerized by Story and he wants to help her.  Pay attention to small details like when Story reveals Cleveland’s real profession.  It is fun to watch Cleveland gradually become obsessed with a fable which may foreshadow Story’s future.   The only person who knows the story well enough to tell it is a Chinese tenant’s mother.  She brashly speaks about the tale throughout the entire film.

The characters are wonderful.  Paul Giamatti delivers one of the best performances of his career.  He is good-natured and affable as Cleveland, a man who seems so brave that in the opening scene we see him in an apartment undertaking the task of killing a big bug (we never see).  It is Giamatti’s acting and the reactions of the inhabitants who watch him in the background that make the scene amusing.  There is another cute moment in which Cleveland is told that in order to have an entire story told to him, he’ll need to expose his inner child to one of the tenants. Imagine Cleveland who drinks from a glass of milk and then leaves the milk traces on his mustache (similar to a “Got milk?” advertisement).  He then lies on a couch like a child would before going to bed.  Then he makes certain leg movements.

It is refreshing to see M. Night Shyamalan incorporate humor in this film as he normally prefers telling a dark tale with sinister subject matters and minimal comedy.  Shyamalan has admitted in interviews that his films usually reflect his mood.  If he is feeling angry, chances are he will write a grim story.  This is how he explained “Signs.”  With “Lady in the Water”, I presume Shyamalan was feeling overjoyed while writing the script.  It flourishes with a rare innocence.  Of course, one could argue that it is gloomy to a certain degree but not to compare with the nature of his previous thrillers.

I enjoyed “Lady in the Water” but I suspect a large percentage of people will not.   I have never discussed Shyamalan’s movies with someone who enjoyed each of his films.  There is always one person who liked “The Sixth Sense” more than “Unbreakable” or those who thought “The Village” was vastly superior to “Signs.”  I believe “Lady in the Water” is Shyamalan at his most sincere form since “The Sixth Sense.”  From the quirky characters to the fantastical elements, one can consider “Lady in the Water” as a modern-day version of “E.T.” in the sense that the story involves an innocent but lovable life form which must safely return to its home with the help of humans.

This is the work of a director who is consumed by his ideas, who is able to balance worry with optimism, and who takes no wrong steps even by casting himself as a secondary character.  What I gathered from this movie is that Shyamalan cares about his projects enough to want to make us care about them as well.  I may not have approved of his “Signs” or “The Village.”  This time, however, Shyamalan’s intention seems focused on enchanting us rather than shocking us.  If this is the case, he has never been more winning.


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