I'm feeling a little sorry for M. Night Shyamalan right about now. Slam-dunking his movies seems to have become an Olympic sport for critics. In fact, on the reviewer's roundup Web site, rottentomatoes.com, the green splats have vastly overrun the ripe reds for his latest outing, Lady in the Water.
I'm not joining the crowd of naysayers this time around, as I found Lady in the Water to be an engaging, richly imaginative bedtime story, one that taps into the power of myth and its ability to foster change.
Yeah, it's got a few flaws -- what movie doesn't? -- and, yeah, it's a little clumsy (it doesn't so much as end as abruptly stop). But with it, Shyamalan breaks the mold he set for himself in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. And for that feat alone, he should be rewarded with a pat on the back.
Up to this point in his career, Shyamalan has remained a prisoner of The Sixth Sense, a chilling, artfully-crafted story with a stomach-kicker of twist. His strenuous attempts to match the impact of his debut effort have failed -- Unbreakable was blah; Signs showed promise, but ultimately impaled itself with an ending so painful it gave one cramps; and The Village was intriguing but bloated, playing out like a Twilight Zone that had outstayed its welcome by an hour. It's fair to say that Shyamalan has not lived up to his promise of cinematic greatness. With Lady in the Water, he aims for cinematic okay-ness. If the movie succeeds at nothing more than putting the filmmaker back on a creative path, then it has more than served its purpose.
Narf aid: The Cove's tenants
There's no twist in Lady in the Water, but that's not to say it doesn't possess an abundance of cleverness. The story centers on Cleveland (Paul Giamatti), stuttering, sorrowful manager at The Cove, a Philadelphia apartment complex. Someone has been swimming in The Cove's pool late at night, and Cleveland is determined to catch the miscreant. He catches something, alright -- a cream-complexioned, red-haired bathing beauty who calls herself Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). Story, it turns out, is a ''narf'' -- a sea nymph -- part of an underwater civiliation known as the Blue World. According to a centuries-old fable, narfs and humans were once connected, but lost touch. Clearly, this was before the days of Cingular. Now the narfs have returned, to save mankind from self-destruction. To do so, a meeting between Story and a blocked writer must transpire. The meeting is a pebble-toss that will start ripples of change, unleashing a series of events that will lead to world peace. Story finds the writer, and the stage is set. For the events to play out in a favorable manner, however, Story must return to the Blue World on the wings of a giant eagle who will only come to fetch her twice before giving up.
Which is where the scrunts come in. Scrunts are canine-like beasts with matted, grassy ''fur,'' allowing them to go undetected by mortals (they resemble a bump in the lawn, so be careful where you step). These evil creatures have one purpose: keep narfs from returning to the Blue World. There are supposed to be ''laws'' that prevent the scrunts from attacking narfs, but a rogue scrunt has made its way to The Cove, and it aims to put an end to Story.
The plot turns on Cleveland's efforts to help Story catch her eagle flight safely. He employs the aid of various tenants, some of whom, it turns out, are predestined to aid narfs. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Shyamalan's film is learning who's who and what their key role is.
Shyamalan keeps things clear and concise -- it's probably the simplest movie he's made to date. The suspense is genuine, the thrills are jolt-worthy (he even gets a fright out of a sprinkler system turning on), and for the first time, Shyamalan lets a gentle sense of humor perfume his screenplay.
Shyamalan elicits fine performances from his diverse cast, which includes the always-wonderful Giamatti (who can switch between comedy and tragedy in a wink), Howard (who speaks little but whose haunting expressions convey volumes), Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America), Freddy Rodriguez (Six Feet Under), Mary Beth Hurt, Bill Irwin and Cindy Cheung. His only casting mishap is including himself as the designated writer, a man who will become a catalyst for global salvation. Aside from the fact that Shyamalan's no actor -- a popped cork has more life -- his choice to inhabit such a crucial role suggests an ego that's inflated beyond a Macy's parade balloon. Shyamalan obviously has a bit too much self-esteem on his hands.
Shyamalan also uses Lady in the Water as an opportunity take an embittered swipe at the critics who have swiped at him: One of the tenants, Harry Farber, is a movie reviewer, and as portrayed by Bob Balaban, he's a dislikeable runt -- dour, arrogant, pissy. When asked how he liked a romantic film, he sputters, ''It sucked.'' Harry is just the kind of character who gets his comeuppance. Trouble is, he doesn't deserve the fate concocted for him by the filmmaker.
The most alarming thing about Lady in the Water is how immediately and without question Cleveland and his tenants accept the narf, who has no fins or flippers, no obvious magical powers, and who prefers to spend most of her time under a running shower. No one declares, ''Maybe she's an escaped loony from the bin!'' They all seem ready to help the moment they're let in on her mission.
Which, I suppose, is Shyamalan's ultimate point: In these turbulent times, hope for a peaceful future resides within us all, and we will take faith in almost any well-meaning savior who happens along with a potential solution that doesn't involve laying waste to another country. And that's a moral I can live with.