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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