Lady in the Water (Warner Bros, PG-13)

Lady in the Water will likely stay in the memory of both children and adults, some of whom may stare wistfully at their backyard pool and just wonder…

 

  Say this for M. Night Shyamalan: he certainly has the courage of his storytelling convictions. He was so committed to making Lady in the Water on his own single-minded terms, that he parted company with Disney over the project, which released all his previous hit films (including The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable). More than one national magazine has dubbed Shyamalan "the new Spielberg," others comparing him to Hitchcock due to the eerie suspense and unpredictable twists of his films. Some of that suspense runs through Lady in the Water as well, but this is much more of an almost traditional fairytale than Shyamalan's previous works. The director (credited also as writer) has said it's a bedtime story he used to tell his children.

Strange that the Disney folks would get all skittish about this reasonably linear tale of a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard, called "Story" in this, uh, story) who emerges one day from the pool of Pennsylvania apartment manager Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) in need of some assistance. Story, you see, is a "Narf," maybe even a "Madame Narf," and she needs to get back to the "Blue World" before one of those nasty, growling "Scrunts" can get her. A Scrunt can disguise itself as merely a bump in the grass, but if a "Guardian" calmly stares it down, it can't get to the Narf, as long as a Healer and members of a "Guild" are also nearby. Got all that?

Don't feel bad; it takes Heep a while to comprehend what's happening, too. He has to rely on the clues dispensed by one of his Asian tenants, Mrs. Choi (June Kyoto Lu), who is familiar with Blue World mythology but speaks no English, and her teenage daughter (Cindy Cheung), who is pretty sure Heep's a little daft, though her translations are critically important. Other tenants playing a role in Story's story are feisty Anna Ran (Sarita Choudhury) and her brother Vick (Shyamalan himself, in a fairly substantial guest role), clever crossword puzzle enthusiast Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright), and grumpy movie critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), who is almost certainly a bit of not-so-subtle satire and Shyamalan's response to the critics who pummeled him for The Village. A later scene involving Farber indicates that Shyamalan can't be accused of not having a sense of humor.

So what we have here is primarily a children's story that's a bit heavy on the details, but can certainly be followed. Shyamalan keeps you watching, and more importantly, the actors do. Giamatti is just wonderful; with his bumbling yet earnest manner, he brings a level of credibility to the strange proceedings that most actors couldn't come close to. Giamatti seems as committed to his role as the director, and it shows. The lovely Ms. Howard is every bit his equal. She was the best thing in The Village, with her ethereal beauty and effortless naturalism-and she's doubly alluring and otherworldly here, although much more vulnerable and tentative, as befitting the "nymph out of water" dilemma facing her. It probably isn't going too far to dub Howard at least one of Shyamalan's muses, and she gives a thoroughly captivating performance. The other actors also gamely go wherever the director takes them, and there seems to be an uncommonly warm bond between the cast.

When all is said and done, that's sort of what Shyamalan seems to have in mind: love, a communal spirit, and everyone working together can make magic and subdue the forces of darkness. Or at least skeptical film studios and the more demanding of moviegoers, the latter of whom may find plenty of fault with this slower-moving, less-compelling Shyamalan vehicle. The film isn't quite a classic, true, but it's inventive and good enough to show that this director still cares a lot more about story than most of his peers do. And Lady in the Water's "Story" will likely stay in the memory of both children and adults, some of whom may stare wistfully at their backyard pool and just wonder, for a spell…

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