M. Night Shyamalan may be a victim of his own talent. The spectacular success of his 1999 film “The Sixth Sense” raised his profile, his salary — and expectations. How does he top a film that earned both critical praise and the 22nd highest domestic box office total of all time?
He can’t. Not that he hasn’t tried: “The Sixth Sense” inaugurated a line of tense supernatural spookers with a surprise at the end.
His latest offering, “Lady in the Water,” doesn’t quite follow the playbook — there is no twist, for example. But it’s still recognizably Shyamalan — for better and worse.
“Lady in the Water,” derived from a bedtime story Mr. Shyamalan told his children, starts out with an animated parable on how man’s move away from the water paralleled his move away from grace: “Man’s need to own everything led him deeper into land.”
We are then introduced to the residents of the Cove, a slightly downmarket apartment building in suburban Philadelphia. The caretaker is Cleveland Heep, a stuttering shell of a man (Paul Giamatti). His quiet life is thrown off balance when, searching for an intruder in the pool late at night, he encounters a mysterious stranger. This Lady (an ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard) is more like a girl; she seems as shy as Cleveland is. But she has a profound effect on him. “Why am I not stuttering?” he suddenly wonders.
Her name is Story and, it turns out, she is a character in one. Story is a “narf,” a sea nymph sent from the Blue World to fulfill a mission and then return home — but an evil creature known as a “scrunt,” a cross between a wild boar and a hyena, is intent on stopping her. This fanciful story mirrors an ancient fairy tale from the East that two Korean tenants explain to Cleveland. By piecing things together, Cleveland realizes that Story can only be saved if all the residents of the building work together.
This is where Mr. Shyamalan is most optimistic. Most viewers will find it easier to believe in narfs and scrunts than that the multicultural melting pot of the Cove will accept Cleveland’s tale no-questions-asked and work hand-in-hand to help a stranger meet up with a giant eagle. Most apartment dwellers don’t even know — let alone like — their neighbors.
More realistic is Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), who isn’t fond of the stoners living below him. An unsympathetic character, Harry is a jaded, know-it-all book and film critic that Mr. Shyamalan probably created as a surrogate target for his own pent-up resentment of unfriendly critics.
It’s not the only self-indulgence here. In a bit of wish-fulfillment casting, Mr. Shyamalan himself, who usually appears in cameos in his films, takes on a major role as Vick Ran, a writer whose ideas, it is foretold, will inspire great change. (Mr. Shyamalan’s talents lie behind the screen, not in front of it.)
If one can suspend disbelief along with the tenants, the movie — beautifully shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle — is as entertaining as anything else playing right now. It’s much funnier than any previous Shyamalan film. Don’t expect the unrelieved atmosphere of foreboding of, say, “The Village.” Whenever the tension becomes too thick here, it is lightened with a joke. The critic character sets up some fun the director has playing with narrative conventions.
Ultimately, “Lady” owes its success to the cast more than to Mr. Shyamalan’s message about finding one’s purpose in life. Particularly good are Cindy Cheung as an Americanized Korean girl and District-native Jeffrey Wright (“Basquiat”) as a crossword sleuth who may or may not be leading the group in the right direction.
But it is Paul Giamatti who steals the show. Few actors are as good at communicating difficult emotions. When he cries out about some lost souls, “I’m going to miss your faces. They remind me of God,” even a cold critic like Harry Farber must be moved.
TITLE: “Lady in the Water”
RATING: PG-13 (some frightening sequences)
CREDITS: Written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Produced by Sam Mercer
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
WEB SITE: ladyinthewater.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS