Pool Party

Washington City Paper | July 21, 2006
If Kevin Smith should get serious already with Clerks II, then perhaps M. Night Shyamalan should turn to comedy. The writer, director, and one-time King of Twist now gives us Lady in the Water, his follow-up to 2004’s disastrous The Village. Lady might not redeem him: It’s not nearly as bad as The Village, nor quite as convoluted as Unbreakable. It’s almost in the same ballpark—let’s say in the satellite parking lot—as Signs. And compared to The Sixth Sense? This release further suggests that Shyamalan’s simple, finely crafted breakout film will one day mark him as a one-hit wonder.

However, Lady in the Water is funny as hell. Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland, the stuttering, easily freaked super of an apartment building that’s quite realistically filled with a few oddballs. Bob Balaban is—also dead-on—a terse, cynical film critic who, barely provoked, bitches that there’s no originality in cinema anymore. (His response to a polite query about his latest press screening: “Sucked....Why do people in movies always talk in the rain?”) Shyamalan, who has a significant part here, is a writer who has a slightly antagonistic relationship with his roommate/sister (Sarita Choudhury). Even if the auteur’s acting remains, at this point, something of an indulgence, he proves here that he can write a script that’s consistently humorous without being sitcom-y and that if he ever gives up directing entirely, he might be able to find work as a straight man.

The plot is built around an otherworldly-looking woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who seems to have been living in the building’s pool. Cleveland catches a glimpse of her one night and later wakes up to find her standing next to his bed. She’s not a talker, this one—perhaps Shyamalan learned his lesson after her awful performance as the blind woman in The Village—but Cleveland manages to find out that her name is Story and that she comes from “the Blue World.” Crude children’s drawings at the beginning of the film explain that there are a people who live in the water, and that occasionally one of them is sent to land because humans could be a great species, if only they didn’t lack the light and—oh, you’ve heard it before.

The rest of the film isn’t so familiar: The water lady is a “narf,” a character in a bedtime story (one that Shyamalan has told his kids). Cleveland and everyone else are characters in the story, too, and their goal is to get the stringy-haired sea chick back home. But there are complications: There are evil monkeys in the woods that surround the apartment building, along with flat, grass-covered creatures who occasionally morph into wolflike beasties that would prefer to eat a narf alive than let her return to the water. There’s also a puzzle that needs to be put together before Story can leave, involving discovering which people in the complex have which roles—the Protector, the Healer, the Guild—and then getting them together to, uh, help her cross to the other side or something. Naturally, everyone, from a group of stoners to a reclusive, lonely man, enthusiastically gets in on the project.

There are no scares and hardly any thrills in Lady in the Water, though cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot Takashi Miike’s Three...Extremes and Zhang Yimou’s Hero, imbues scene after scene with a menacing Halloween atmosphere. The plot, though absurdly complicated and dippily James Campbell–esque, is exotic enough to hold your attention, and the dialogue is far superior to the stilted conversation in The Village. If you let its funnier lines take you off guard, buy into Shyamalan’s recurrent idea that we’re all part of some obscure but comprehensible cosmic plan, and don’t believe that flat, grass-covered creatures who occasionally morph into wolflike beasties are utterly ridiculous in themselves, you might be sufficiently lulled into thinking it’s all good enough. But here’s the Shyamalan-esque twist: Once you leave the theater and think about it for two seconds, you’ll know it’s not.

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