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"LADY IN THE WATER"
(2006) (Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Horror: A modest apartment complex manager tries to assemble a group of tenants to assist a fairy tale nymph in accomplishing her goal and help her return to her watery home.
PLOT:
Cleveland Heep (PAUL GIAMATTI) is the manager and superintendent for the Cove Apartments in Philadelphia. Something of a lowly and modest man with a stutter, he lives on the grounds and spends most of his time making repairs for the various tenants. Among them is crossword puzzler master Mr. Dury (JEFFREY WRIGHT) and his son Joey (NOAH GRAY-CABEY); animal lover and former author Mrs. Bell (MARY BETH HURT); and intellectual recluse Mr. Leeds (BILL IRWIN).

Bodybuilder Reggie (FREDDY RODRIGUEZ) is only bulking up on one side of his body; Korean college student Young-Soon Choi (CINDY CHEUNG) lives there with her traditional mom (JUNE KYOKO LU) who doesn't speak English, while political writer Vick Ran (M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN) shares his place with his sister Anna (SARITA CHOUDHURY). The newest tenant is book and film critic Mr. Farber (BOB BALABAN) who seems to want to be left alone.

Believing someone's been swimming in the pool after hours and against the rules, Cleveland thinks he's caught the person, but he ends up falling into the pool and nearly drowns. He's saved by a mysterious woman named Story (BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD) who says she's a sea nymph known as a Narf from the Blue World. She's there to cause an awakening in a certain person, but doesn't know who that is. Complicating matters is a wolf-type creature known as a scrunt that lives in the grass and can't be seen by humans except via a mirror.

Cleveland never questions this or his learning from Young-Soon that various people there are predestined to assist her in avoiding the scrunt, find the chosen person and then prepare to return to her world via an eagle that will transport her. Accordingly, he then sets out to help her by assembling those people so that she can succeed at the task at hand before time runs out.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Ask most any parent (or grandparent) and they'll tell you that kids love bedtime stories. The beauty of that activity regarding young kids is that the storytellers can pretty much make up the story on the fly, using fantastical names for the characters and places, just as long as the vocal inflections and intonations are done just right.

A cute example of that occurred long ago on TV's "M*A*S*H" where Col. Potter read a bedtime story to a Korean kid who didn't mind that he couldn't understand a word he was hearing or, for that matter, that Potter was reading an Army manual of some sort. Since the delivery was pitch-perfect, it had the desired effect.

Of course, when kids get older, the stories have to be better and, more importantly, need to make sense no matter how fantastical they might seem. While kids are apt to ask questions during such storytelling, they shouldn't be about problems with the story or storytelling, such as things not making sense, being explained enough, and/or coming off as boring.

Such thoughts crossed my mind when "Uncle" M. Night Shyamalan was trying to put my to sleep (and nearly succeeded) with his big screen version of a bedtime fairytale, "Lady in the Water." It has all of the requisite elements including a fairy type character (a Narf named Story), a human that tries to help her (named Heep), and a monster (called a scrunt) that tries to eat both as she attempts to accomplish her goal. And it's reportedly based on a story he made up for his own kids (which makes you wonder if they've also heard tales of seeing dead people, alien invaders and dangerous creatures in the woods).

The question then, is how did it all go so terribly wrong? Is it a parody of sorts that went awry? There are a surprising amount of comedy bits, as well as Night poking fun at cinematic storytelling, not to mention film critics (veteran supporting actor Bob Balaban plays a stuffy one here). Is it a case of a filmmaker believing in his own myth while trying to create a new movie one? On the other hand, could it be that it's just an example of a director losing his way and delivering a cinematic dud?

It's possible it's a combination of all three. There have been reports that Night had a falling out with the suits at his former studio over this film regarding them finding all sorts of faults (the story not making any sense, etc.) and him thinking they just didn't get it. Whatever the case, it's now a mess of a movie and a rather boring one at that.

And that's despite the talented Paul Giamatti desperately trying to make it work as the human character who gets lured into the tale of one such Narf -- Bryce Dallas Howard marking her second film with Night after "The Village" -- being sent from the sea to try to enlighten one human and thus possibly save the human race from themselves.

Not knowing who her target is, she must avoid the wolf in the grass scrunt creature (that looks enough like the woods monsters from "The Village" that it seems the filmmaker got a discount from his special effects house, albeit at an apparently discounted rate) as the apartment complex manager tries to assemble a team of tenants to help her get back home via a large eagle that will transport her.

Yes, a healthy dose of SOD (Suspension of Disbelief) is needed on both his and our part, but we simply don't ever buy it on either end. Night goes through the motions and tries to elicit the right tone (starting with narration and stick figure visuals to introduce the tale), but unlike that boy in "M*A*S*H," we can see right through all of this storytelling.

The biggest problem is that it just doesn't make any sense. Yes, I got all of the religious and philosophical symbolism (which the filmmaker has used in various ways and to different degrees in his other films). But the story is riddled with far too many holes, preachiness, lapses in logic (and seemingly made up "rules" of who and what the characters are, and what they can and can't do, etc.) as well as questionable character motivation For instance, we never understand why Giamatti's character becomes so obsessed with finding the truth as compared to, say, Richard Dreyfuss' character in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where that quest worked so brilliantly.

And without any sort of consistent tone (it goes from fairy tale to horror and comedy and back again), it becomes an increasingly frustrating and ultimately tedious experience, worsened by the fact that we don't care about any of the characters, their predicaments and/or goals, or the outcome. In fact, this could be one of the most boring films I've seen all year (there have been worse -- far worse -- in terms of filmmaking quality, etc. but few this tiresome).

Far too obvious (yes, that's red clothing in the dryer behind the wolf's reflection in the glass door) went not overtly convoluted, this is arguably the filmmaker's weakest effort (yes, even below "The Village" that at least had a solid tone and storytelling style). While I applaud that it didn't contain the "surprise" ending that's now come to define Night's work, "Lady in the Water" ends up all wet, dripping and clinging to its self-important mythology. Blub-blub-blub. It rates as a boring 3 out of 10.




Reviewed July 17, 2006 / Posted July 21, 2006


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