Lady in the metaphor

“Lady in the Water”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright

Rated PG-13/120 minutes

Opens July 21, 2006

Three out of four stars

Aaron Allen

The Daily Utah Chronicle

M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” is the work of an egocentric filmmaker given complete creative control, no questions asked. Shyamalan is so wrapped up in himself and his story that he hardly seems to care if anyone else gets it. There’s a certain “critics be damned” attitude about the movie, made clear by the film critic character that gets eaten by a monster.

Shyamalan even wrote himself into the plot as a novelist whose book will change the world. We are not dealing with mere hubris here. Hat sizes the world over will have to be adjusted: small, medium, large, extra-large, Shyamalan.

And yet, “Lady in the Water” is so off-putting, so bizarre, so insular and just so darned goofy that you can’t help but hold your breath through the whole thing. Can he pull this story off? It’s fascinating to watch him try.

Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heep (great name), a lonely superintendent who discovers a sea nymph in the apartment’s swimming pool.

What is a sea nymph, you ask? Beats me. Played by Bryce Dallas Howard, the nymph is a pale, shivering, specter of a girl who likes to steal things and sit under running showers. She’s either a meth addict or a magical being from “The Blue World,” aptly named Story. Story has crossed into our world so she can meet the novelist (Shyamalan, awkward as usual) and tell him a secret that has nothing to do with seeing dead people.

OK, that’s all fine and good, but why does she go to all the trouble of meeting the novelist, if he would’ve finished the book without her anyway? She doesn’t so much inspire him as give him a God-complex. Gee, I wonder why Shyamalan plays that part?

Complications arise, most of which have to do with the rules and creatures of Story’s world spilling into Cleveland’s. He must protect her from a half-wolf, half-sod thing that wants to eat her, or something, before she can be rescued by a giant eagle?or something?

The plot is incomprehensible, silly fairy-tale nonsense, but the movie is aware of that. There’s a funny scene in which Cleveland goes to the film critic for advice: “What would I do if I were a character in a movie?” Bob Balaban plays a great critic, bald and bespectacled, with snarky arrogance. He has an encounter with the wolf/grass/teeth monster that exploits every thriller clich in the book-we know it because he talks us through them, which also exploits the clich of characters who think aloud.

It gradually becomes clear that Shyamalan has ditched a sincere approach to the material. “Lady in the Water” isn’t about a lady and it isn’t about Cleveland-it’s about stories and the act of storytelling.

Everyone in the apartment has a story, or is writing a story, or plays a part in a story. The lady in the water-Story-is hardly developed as a character, but as a catalyst for the strange events that happen; she reawakens a childlike faith in those around her. It’s not just that Cleveland and his friends realize they’re characters out of a storybook, it’s that they can actually get caught up in something so absurd.

It’s no surprise that this movie began life as a bedtime story Shyamalan told his children. It has the whimsical, far-out-ness of a truly whacked bedtime story that changes with every telling.

“Lady in the Water” will divide audiences more than Shyamalan’s last film, “The Village.” Some people will hate it, I’m sure. In a recent issue of Creative Screenwriting, Shyamalan said in an interview regarding audience expectations: “I’m just going to do my own thing, and there will be subtle and moderate shifts over time that (the audience) will accept.”

Career advice, M. Night: Check the ego. I admire the risks you take, but tread carefully, or someday no one will shift with you.