If it's not a Scrunt, it's a Narf. Or if the Tartutic doesn't get you, maybe the Eatlon will. These are just some of the lessons M. Night Shyamalan expects you to learn in his lamebrained bedtime story Lady in the Water, which I'd find a whole lot more sensible if I were one of his two young daughters dozing off to sleep. This, at least according to the American Express ads, is how the project took form. And if you need even more mythology behind the mythology, there's a fawning book, The Man Who Heard Voices; Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, by Michael Bamberger, that I predict will be in print years after Water has passed beneath the bridge of hostile reviews—the Fade Out to his Heaven's Gate. One's a vanity book. The other's a vanity movie. Both should've been stopped long before the Sixth Sense auteur entered that Michael Jackson–esque realm that might be called The Land Where There Is No "No."
Lady in the Water Opens at Neptune and other theaters, Fri., July 21. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.
As in, "M. Night, this is a terrible idea for a movie." Which the director's former corporate patrons at Disney were honest enough to tell him. Which enraged him so much that he went to a different studio (Warner Bros.; sell your stock now and buy Disney). Which prompted the suck-up book (apparently Bamberger has a sick child or college tuition or a new kitchen to pay for). Which relates how this genius Shyamalan clung to his vision, how he published a children's fairy-tale version of The Lady in the Water, how he vainly screened The Wizard of Oz to inspire his cast and his crew, how he persisted in playing the part of the writer ("the vessel") himself— yes, Keanu in The Matrix, the Chosen One upon whom all mankind depends—to defend what might be called The Shyamalan Prophecy. This, according to a cave-art animated prologue, is that a Narf will emerge from the water to transmit her ancient wisdom and otherwise inspire "the awakening of man."
All of which amounts to Bryce Dallas Howard climbing naked out of a courtyard apartment pool like a pale, pimply fish past its expiration date. To apartment superintendent Paul Giamatti (forced to act with a very annoying stutter), asking her to put her clothes on. To a Melrose Place apartment complex full of eccentrics (including Jeffrey Wright, Jared Harris, Bob Balaban, Bill Irwin, and Sarita Choudhury), each with a special power waiting for the Narf to reveal. Some are healers. Some are guardians. Some are members of a secret guild. And some—meaning you and me in the audience—are bored silly.
Meanwhile, outside lurks the Scrunt, a grassy green CGI hyena-dog hunting the Narf, and overhead flaps the Eatlon to take her home, and in the woods lurk the Tartutic, three Oz-ish tree monkeys. Somehow Giamatti keeps a straight face while finding his place in the Narf cosmology (conveniently explained by a Korean tenant), while Howard seems incapable of doing anything with her face. (She spends half the time quivering in the shower, communicating by sign language.) The drama boils down to whether she'll make her flight, and whether Giamatti will recover from a past tragedy (like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, like Mel Gibson in Signs). Shyamalan's idea of a big suspense moment, early in the film, comes with the discovery of an ominous clue in the pool—hair! In the pool filter! Can you imagine?
BEFORE THE DVD (which I'd expect in about two weeks, after the stink clears from theaters), you can already preview more of Shyamalan's pre-emptive P.R. campaign on Amazon.com, where there's a five- minute video clip of him reading from the children's picture book version of Lady in the Water. "I wanted to say 'Hi' to all the Amazon.com customers," he begins. (Not readers, kids, parents, book lovers, or fairy-tale enthusiasts, but customers—how shrewdly we're assessed.) He goes on to explain how, when spinning the original story to his daughters, "It went on and on for days and days. It grew into this kind of obsessive feature of our household." I'll say. Rarely do artists speak with such candor. Apparently by stringing together a bunch of Jabberwocky nonsense words and warm notions of a better tomorrow . . . if you just keep talking . . . the kids will eventually fall asleep! Better still, you've created an adult masterwork in the process, like Picasso picking up the bar tab with a napkin doodle. Get me Disney on the phone! I've got a script to sell!
Shyamalan kills off a film-critic character in the movie, but that's not why so much will be written about its media reception. It's that the movie's so bad, a mere plot summary is the most effective and damning form of criticism. After that, it's time for What was he thinking?, which is so much more fun. Yet the director doesn't come across as an egomaniac in his acting. His part isn't actually that big, and he's quite effective in it. He doesn't overplay, and he generally doesn't encourage others to. (Just try to overlook Giamatti's one embarrassing breakdown; he didn't write this Narf.)
Though The Sixth Sense got Shyamalan somewhat unfairly pegged as a horror director, what Water reveals is the horror of expectations—the pressure of being a genius, the burden of your past legacy, topping yourself, coming up with another fabulous twist ending. And the great thing about kids is that they free you of that stress, since they're happy with any old tale, no matter how ridiculous, which I'm sure has been quite wonderful for Shyamalan as a parent. As a writer (i.e., his character in the movie), he speaks of being freed of the fears and insecurities that were clouding his work. As a filmmaker, maybe he should turn back to that fear. It might sharpen his storytelling.