Paul Giamatti (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)
Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic world)
Bob Balaban (Ghost World)
Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games 2, 3 & 4)
Sarita Choudhury (Gloria)
Freddy Rodriguez (Planet Terror)
Bill Irwin (Interstellar)
Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes 2)
Noah Gray-Cabey (Heroes)
Doug Jones (Hellboy)
David Ogden Stiers (Two Guys and a Girl)
John Boyd (Bones)
Monique Gabriela Curnen (The Dark Knight)
The woman of the title isn’t a lady so much as a sea nymph, otherwise known as a “narf” in the fairytale parlance dreamed up by Shyamalan. And the waterlogged universe she inhabits is a swimming pool at a dingy Philadelphia apartment complex called The Cove. But the poor narf, named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), is in dire straits. She needs the help of humans to return to her magical universe, and so Story gleans hope one night when she is discovered in the pool by The Cove’s sad-sack handyman, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti).
Cleveland, who keeps to himself in a tiny cottage adjacent to the apartment building, suffers the scars of a tragic past that he keeps under wraps. Story’s plight suddenly gives purpose to this lonesome man; in no time at all, he is helping protect the narf from a vicious creature known as a “scrunt,” which lurks in the woods surrounding The Cove. Moreover, Cleveland sets out to deduce which of the apartments’ tenants have preordained roles in Story’s rescue.Randomness does not exist is the hermetically sealed world of M. Night Shyamalan. As Cleveland learns that Story is part of a fairytale brought to life, Lady in the Water takes on the risible everything-has-a-purpose theme that turned the filmmaker’s Signs into dross. Still, the neatly constructed order induces fewer eye rolls this time around, since Shyamalan can simply hide behind the kitchen-sink dynamic of fairytales. All the silliness Shyamalan tosses in about guardians, healers, a guild and the like reminds me of the Rob Lowe character in Thank You for Smoking, who notes that movies can remedy any inconsistency with “one line of dialogue: ‘Thank God we invented the … whatever device.'”A lot of whatever devices turn up in Lady in the Water, a film that shamelessly displays the seams of its bedtime-story origins. Cleveland learns about Story’s magical world, and what must be done to return the narf to her kingdom, from an elderly Asian woman (June Kyoto Lu) with an unnerving command of the mighty obscure fable. Neither the woman nor her Americanized granddaughter (Cindy Cheung) gives it a second thought that Mr. Heep, who quickly accepts Story’s story, keeps popping up with hypothetical questions about the world of narfs and scrunts. Another resident reads magical messages on cereal boxes.
The cast tries to jumpstart things, albeit with mixed results. Howard, who was perhaps the best thing about The Village, is well-cast as the pale, ethereal sea nymph, but she is given precious little to do. Giamatti is also a gifted actor, but he isn’t asked to do much more than stutter and project melancholy. Some very good character actors — including Jeffrey Wright, Freddy Rodriguez, Mary Beth Hurt and Bill Irwin — are wasted in one-dimensional roles as The Cove’s apartment dwellers.
And then there is the director himself. Shyamalan has appeared in his films before, but Lady in the Water marks his first significant acting part. Here he portrays a struggling writer whose manuscript, “The Cookbook,” might just be pretty darned important. As a filmmaker, Shyamalan is a bona fide original. As an actor, he is merely insipid. Then again, maybe Shyamalan’s casting of himself as the unappreciated, world-changing artist just fills some deeply rooted narcissistic need of his.