Among the things you'll encounter in the new film Lady in the Water: a fanged creature called a Scrunt; an otherworldly redhead named Story, who is a narf; a stuttering handyman named Cleveland Heep. That's right, kids, it's time to be force-fed another convoluted tale "from the imagination of M. Night Shyamalan." The writer-director who created a supernatural sensation with The Sixth Sense and an unintentional laugh riot with The Village is back with a vengeance.
This time out, he's come up with a sodden story of Story, a lost "narf," (essentially, a mermaid) who somehow finds a portal into the shabby swimming pool of a Pennsylvania apartment complex. What happens next is a muddled, condescending fable with religious overtones in which our schlubby hero Cleveland (everyman extraordinaire Paul Giamatti) tries to get the glassy-eyed Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, looking like an extra from a Tori Amos video) back to her homeland, wherever that may be. But as we're told by some lengthy opening narration, Story's journey is no ordinary pilgrimage: The fate of mankind rests in the hands of this ragtag bunch of renters.
This latest effort is a personal one for the writer-director: He left his longtime studio Disney to make it when they suggested he make changes to his script (gasp!). Judging by the unfettered, finished product, it's obvious that Shyamalan wants to create some sort of multi-culti sci-fi fantasy that will unite us all. But Lady in the Water comes off more like a glum, morose version of Sesame Street, with various and variously talented ethnic performers poking their heads into Cleveland's apartment to offer stab-in-the-dark mystical advice about the drippy creature in his shower stall.
The red flags start waving early, and they only multiply as the movie stumbles toward its conclusion. Story's powers are frustratingly undefined: She can tell the future, but she can't tell anyone how to get her home. Her hair turns from red to blond for no apparent reason. And the blue-studded rocks she collects in Cleveland's pool ultimately don't inform her mystery in any meaningful way. Try as they might, the talented Giamatti and the promising Howard can't generate chemistry the former because he's saddled with a slew of tics and mannerisms, the latter because she isn't given anything interesting to do or say.
The supporting cast is loaded with talented, idiosyncratic actors including Jeffrey Wright (Syriana), Freddy Rodríguez (Six Feet Under) and Jared Harris (The Notorious Bettie Page) but they, too, meander on and off the screen arbitrarily, in search of a purpose. Worse, Shyamalan has decided to get all meta-movie on us by casting himself in a significant speaking part as get this a visionary writer whose ideas, we're told, will one day save the world. The filmmaker's previous ego-trip cameos were nothing compared to this role: He has zero charisma, and yet the camera lingers on his blank face as if he's some sort of renegade hero.
The movie might be utterly worthless were it not for the contributions of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his visionary collaborations with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Confined to one location, a garish set design and some lame special effects, Doyle manages to create a sumptuous, delicate, graceful world out of the mundane. He can do more with one shot than Shyamalan can do with an entire script.
About halfway through the film, Shyamalan's character receives a premonition and tearfully asks, "Are people suddenly going to start taking me seriously?" Not after they see Lady in the Water.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.