Lady in the Water

Everyone is ragging so much on writer-director M. Night Shyamalan — he's reportedly arrogant, self-absorbed and unable to produce a hit to match The Sixth Sense — that it would be a pleasure to report that his pet project, Lady in the Water, based on a story he made up for his children, is his vindication. But I'd be lying. The movie is a muddle, burdened with too many characters and a sorry lack of thrills, flair and coherence. Yet Shyamalan's talent is real. Unbreakable strikes me as criminally underrated. What hobbles Lady — the tale of a sea nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, who looks ethereal and lets it go at that), trapped underneath a swimming pool in a Philadelphia apartment complex — is Shyamalan's unjustified conviction that what he means to say about life and faith is coming across onscreen. It isn't. Story depends on building super Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, who cannot be less than excellent) to save her from creatures who don't want her to get home. Why? Don't look for answers. You'll find only arcane references and characters played by fine actors (Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin) who barely register. But if Lady is a misfire for Shyamalan — every non-hack filmmaker has them — it is also the work of a born filmmaker. A new book, The Man Who Heard Voices, by Michael Bamberger, tells how Shyamalan was so enraged at Disney for rejecting his script that he retaliated by taking Lady to Warners. Whether or not you agree that the suits at Disney were right in rejecting the script — and they have their points — it's hard to side with a studio for failing to take a risk on a director who has earned it millions even with lesser films like The Village. You leave Lady thinking there are still voices in Shyamalan's head well worth a listen.

From The Archives Issue 368: April 29, 1982