There exists the distinct possibility that M. Night Shyamalan is actually insane. And if not, he's got a lot of explaining to do. I liked The Sixth Sense and loved Signs, respected Unbreakable on a second viewing despite its goofiness, and had hoped that The Village was a rare misstep. But Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's "bedtime story," is an unqualified disaster. It's brutally disappointing to see a filmmaker that once exhibited the potential to create an important body of work disappear down a sinkhole of self-absorption, incoherence, and plain foolishness. And the painful irony is, Shyamalan seems to believe that he's doing the most important work of his life.
After an animated opening explaining how humanity has detached from its water-dwelling neighbors, the narfs, because of capitalism or something, we open on Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), janitor at a Philadelphia apartment complex called The Cove, squashing a large bug residing under a family's sink (it's the best scene in the film). Cleveland leads a solitary existence after a personal tragedy left him with a bad stutter. One night, while investigating some strange goings on around the pool, Cleveland falls in and is rescued by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a narf sent to our world in order to give us hope, and more specifically to inspire a writer named Vick Ran (played, in an act of unbelievable hubris, by Shyamalan) to finish a book that will save the world. Story must return home, but she is thwarted by scrunts - dog-like monsters with grass-like hair that stalk The Cove at night. To stop the scrunts, they will need to summon three wooden fighting monkeys ("tartutic") before Story is carried away by the Great Eatlon, the last of the giant eagles. But Cleveland cannot do this alone; he must recruit the help of the various cultural stereotypes of The Cove who have been predestined to fulfill roles such as the healer, the guardian, and the guild. And he must do this before he's written his letter home to his mother, unless he's getting his hair cut, in which case he should put his clothes on the lower peg before lunch. As you can tell, Lady in the Water is filled with plot convolutions that Shyamalan seems to find whimsical and charming, which supports the insanity theory.
But giant eagle aside, the real problem with Lady in the Water is that it seemingly exists primarily to demonstrate how clever and important M. Night Shyamalan believes himself to be. Ran is told by Story that he will be martyred for his work, which will be misunderstood in its time; Shyamalan seems to be anticipating Lady's scathing reviews, and his naked insecurity is evident in his apparent argument that if we don't like his hodgepodge of underdeveloped modern myths cribbed from Joseph Campbell and The Lord of the Rings, it's because we're not ready for its visionary brilliance yet. Shyamalan's vanity sours the whole film, and it's unfortunate - Giamatti and the ensemble cast (particulary Jeffrey Wright as a puzzle enthusiast and Jared Harris as the king of the stoners) do their best to give this misbegotten fairy tale humor and warmth, but no actor could redeem this lunacy. The most underused is Howard, who has shown promise in the past but is given little to do here except silently exclaim "I have huge eyes!"* Story remains such an undefined character that it's possible Shyamalan never gave much thought to what exactly a narf is. Worse, the film wastes the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, who has done stunning work with Kar Wai Wong, Yimou Zhang, and Gus Van Sant. His images here are as impressive and ambitious as ever, rich in shades of melancholy blue. But Shyamalan has no idea what direction his movie should take (how sad in a film about the importance of storytelling), and so the story cannot support the images, which become pretty but inert.
The absolute worst thing about Lady in the Water (other than the giant eagle) is a subplot involving a film critic, Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), who lives in the complex. Flatly stating that "there is no more originality in the world," Farber is ultimately punished for his incorrect assumptions about the formula of the film he is in. But while there is a lot of humor to be mined from satirizing critics, Farber's main crime seems to be that he doesn't like everything. Again, Shyamalan is preemptively attacking his critics, at one point even demonstrating how Farber's reliance on formula proves wrong in the case of this narrative. Except that he's still right - his assumptions about the conventions of the story are accurate, but Shyamalan does a little tap-dancing to pretend that he's redefining the linear narrative as we know it. We're left with the suggestion that anyone who didn't like Signs deserves to die, and it's an ugly, hostile message for a film supposedly meant to inspire wonder.
What absolutely confounds me is that I actually strongly believe in most of the ideas that Shyamalan is expressing here. Our lives must have purpose beyond our immediate understanding. We are connected to the people in our lives, and sometimes we unite for a common purpose. Art does have the power to change the world. And important symbols from my own life and work - butterflies, water, even Bob Dylan and David Bowie - pop up here and there. The film even has some thematic and stylistic overlap with Worlds, the screenplay Jess and I wrote, particularly in Story's mannered dialogue (though we meant it as a joke). I want to believe in Lady in the Water, but ultimately even the most resonant concepts on display are tainted in the service of a pretentious little megalomaniac with a pathetic leading man complex who imagines himself as John the Baptist. Lady in the Water is the kind of movie I would make if I was an insufferable dolt. I spent four years depending Signs as fun pop theology coupled with crackerjack filmmaking, but I'm officially done; whatever promise Shyamalan once showed has been carried away on the wings of a giant eagle.
*Credit goes to Jess for this line.