A loud splash disturbs the outdoor pool one night at The Cove, a drab, built-for-economy apartment complex somewhere in low-rent Philadelphia. The apartment's stuttering super, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) bounds out of his poolside bungalow, flashlight at the ready, thinking he's just caught one of the tenants in an unauthorized, off-hours cannonball. He's actually interrupted Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a skinny dipper from the stars who has arrived in our world to complete a task so profound that she can't even articulate it. She can't articulate anything, in fact. Her role in the film will be to wander around aimlessly, speaking in a throaty hush and preferring to remain naked save for a man's button-up shirt that drops past her knees. Sometimes she gives off a seductive gaze and bares her long legs, while other times she wilts, as if her batteries are being drained by malevolent outside forces. She's like a cross between Annette Bening and E.T.
We eventually learn that she is a sea nymph from The Blue World, which sounds like a place you'd see on HBO's Real Sex, and she's come to deliver prognostications about the future of America. She can look someone in the eye and tell them exactly what happens in their future, and does so more than once, without even the courtesy of a spoiler warning. Why she crash landed at The Cove is a long story, matched in complexity only by the one about how she plans to return to her home planet. Her situation is so complicated that you wonder why she bothered making the trip; among other things, she must elude a wolfish predator with grass for fur, decipher complex symbology that will identify her Guardian and her Guild, and summon a giant eagle that can be ridden out of town like a flying carpet. Is this film derived from a bedtime story or the liner notes to a Led Zeppelin album?
Lady in the Water can best be described as the most recent entry in M. Night 2.0, a filmography that began abruptly in the last fifteen minutes of 2002's Signs. That was the moment when an otherwise economic, nail-biting thriller -- like the ones that preceded it -- suddenly unspooled into a morass of evangelical blubbering about the need of man to accept that everything happens for a reason and keep his spiritual tuning fork in sync with the realm of signs and wonders around him. Up until that moment, even his critics would have described M. Night Shyamalan as a director who understood the principle of "show, don't tell," and one who crafted his films with a fine razor blade, leaving all unnecessary shavings on the cutting room floor. But no more. Lady is all the proof we need that Night's hard U-turn from Boy Hitchcock into the Jehovah's Witness of movie directors has made for an unsatisfying transformation. That said, if you like the new Night, you'll be happy to know that Paul Giamatti's Cleveland Heep is a classic M. Night 2.0 hero -- a former doctor who suffered a tragedy and lost his faith in the possibility of miracles and now squanders his talents by doing the grunt work of unclogging drains and handing out keys to newly arrived tenants.
Like Mel Gibson's character in Signs, Heep won't even countenance any talk of his previous life; he demands it not be spoken of at all. His fellow Cove dwellers have to kick him down the road like a tin can, helping him Be The Man He Once Was so that Story's destiny can be fulfilled. There's the old Korean woman (June Kyoto Lu) who just happens to be a walking, talking encyclopedia of Blue World lore; a crossword puzzle buff (Jeffrey Wright) whose inane puzzle answers may hold supernatural import; the snooty movie critic, played by Bob Balaban, who dares to suggest that he can see through the plot of the film he's actually in, as if any mere human could guess the conclusion of an M. Night film; the novelist, played by M. Night himself, at work on a rambling manuscript he calls The Cookbook. Story makes it clear several times in the film that she has come to our world in order to serve man, and one of the few things she gets worked up enough to inquire about is The Cookbook. But don't get your hopes up like I did -- there's no horrifying Twilight Zone twist in store.
Everything in the film feels strangely pre-ordained; it takes very little effort for Cleveland to convince an entire apartment block of strangers that he is sheltering a mer-woman from beyond the moon who holds vital information about the future of the United States and can't leave his bungalow, lest she be instantly set upon by the angriest dog since the one that tried to make Moranis burgers out of Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters. The tenants, in other words, are totally walled off from critical thinking. Like the characters in a children's storybook -- yes, I get it -- they exist only to move the story to its next chapter, and never question or even express wonderment at anything. Doesn't that take away from the effectiveness of the story? I think so. Another problem with the film is the inexplicable desire of the filmmaker to spend time shooting arrows at everyone who dared to criticize his last film, instead of getting on with the business of storytelling. Balaban's movie critic character exists for no other purpose than to stare forlornly off into space and express drippy, cynical bon mots like "That there's no originality left in the world is a sad fact I've come to accept." Substitute "M. Night films" for "the world" and you get the idea of what kind of cynicism is being rebelled against here.
Night can't seem to countenance that anyone may have lost faith in him, so he's now content to launch preemptive strikes against those who might do his movies harm before they even arrive in theaters. What in the world was he thinking? My instinct is to refrain from being more critical of Lady in the Water, primarily because there are elements of the film that reminded me of why I enjoy Night's work so much, and also because the marriage of big budgets with original stories from writer/directors is such a rare commodity these days that it's refreshing just to see something that sprang from the mind and not a 70s TV show or a comic book. Whatever else it is, the film isn't a pretentious hot-air balloon like Superman Returns that expects me to be grateful for the privilege of paying ten dollars to see a movie that came out 28 years ago, only this time without the fun parts. Lady is the work of an immensely talented filmmaker who has misjudged his strengths and should be smart enough to realize it by this point.