a critiQal film review Lady In The Water (2006)

Plot: Cleveland Heep (Giamatti), a modest building manager, rescues a mysterious young woman from danger and discovers she is actually a narf -a character from a bedtime story who is trying to make the treacherous journey from our world back to hers. Cleveland and his fellow tenants start to realize that they are also characters in this bedtime story. As Cleveland falls deeper and deeper in love with the woman, he works together with the tenants to protect his new fragile friend from the deadly creatures that reside in this fable and are determined to prevent her from returning home.

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  • ...at times both haunting and hopeful, this is the second M. Night Shyamalan film worth at least a rental.

After his breakout smash with The Sixth Sense (1999), director M. Night Shyamalan’s films have been on a downward trend, with his films becoming progressively worse: Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and then The Village (2004). Since we were worried that anything could be worse than The Village (2004), we passed on seeing his new twisted bedtime story Lady In The Water in theaters.

Once it hit DVD, however, we decided to give M. Night one more chance. Would Lady In The Water be his worst film yet, or had M. Night finally broken out of his slump?

Paul Giamatti seems to be the exact opposite of most viewer’s idea when they think actor. They think “movie star good looks”, and a smoothness on camera, right? Paul, on the other hand, seems skittish, and no one would consider him good-looking. Instead, he’s the every man of film, yet manages to still get roles. Why? Hopefully, it’s because Hollywood isn’t as shallow as everyone thinks. More probably, it’s the big fan base he’s built that regards him as a good actor, despite his appearance.

Most, however, would never expect to see nervous nelly Paul in a starring role, but that’s just what M. Night puts him into in Lady In The Water, and he definitely proves he’s got the acting chops, even if he doesn’t have the looks.

Coming across at first as the rather plain Cleveland Heep, Paul grows the character from the stuttering nobody he first appears into a deeper character the audience bonds with almost in spite of themselves. As his character grows, the viewer is there to witness every triumph and set back, and cheers as this nobody of a man that at first garners their sympathy, then later on garners a bit of their respect. It’s an impressive, yet unobtrusive, transformation, and the talented Mr. Giamatti pulls it off with ease.

With Giamatti as the rather piteous leading man, the introduction of the hauntingly beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard as the sea-nymph is even more striking in Lady in the Water. With her childlike innocence mixed with eyes that seem to have seen too much, she is at the opposite end of the spectrum so completely she actually seems to perfectly compliment Giamatti’s downtrodden character.

But Lady In The Water isn’t focused on just two people – instead, it’s a much larger cast than what the viewer is used to from M. Night. While the larger cast make for less screen time for a lot of the characters, they all do their part to keep the movie flowing, including a surprisingly decent performance from M. Night himself.

Lady In The Water, based on a bedtime story that M. Night made up for his kids, is a lot different from what most viewers will expect. Equal parts fantasy and myth, it combines basic elements of both to create a unique story that is able to seem vaguely familiar to viewers – almost as if they had heard this story before.

But they haven’t, and M. Night still has the ability to surprise, just as he did back in The Sixth Sense (1999). With The Sixth Sense (1999), he presented such subtle clues that most viewers had no idea of the surprise ending. In Lady In The Water, most of the twists aren’t as subtle, but he manages to make them interesting even if the viewer guesses what’s around the corner.

M. Night may finally be learning that while he fooled most viewers with The Sixth Sense (1999), viewers are savvy, and aren’t as likely to be fooled again. With films like Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), he relied too much on his twists to come as a complete shock to the viewers…and didn’t follow up with a good film for those who could guess the ending.

With Lady In The Water, the end is a foregone conclusion, but the path there is full of twists and turns. Even though some of these twists can be seen coming from miles away, the path is so interesting the viewer will want to see the film through anyway – partly to see if their guess is correct, and partly because it’s such a good story.

If M. Night can come up with this kind of a bedtime story for his kids, it makes you wonder why he ever made Signs (2002) and The Village (2004). Maybe those were undone by too much planning, and he should stick with more films that he pulls off the top of his head.

The storyline, which places normal everyday people in the midst of a fantastical fable, is easy to relate to. The characters down-to-earth mentalities suddenly come up against something that is so out of their realm they can barely understand it. And the viewer will be with them every little step along the way, living vicariously through the actions of these everyday people who go to extraordinary lengths to help someone they barely even know. It says a lot about M. Night’s hopes for what the human spirit could be – and what we all wish is true about ourselves.

At times both haunting and hopeful, Lady In The Water is definitely worth a rental…and goes a long way towards putting M. Night back on our good side.

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