The film, from a story Shyamalan made up to read to his children before bed, starts badly, with an introductory hieroglyphic animation that gives a scant introduction to a magical universe of undersea creatures that once lived in harmony with man. These angelic creatures, called Narfs, make occasional forays onto land from The Blue World to impart wisdom to Man and inspire peace on earth. Trying to stop them are the demonic Snarks, camouflaged wolves with red eyes and sharp teeth. Later, when it suits Shyamalan, we discover that the Snarks are policed by a similarly difficult-to-see gang of cosmic monkeys called the Tarturic, but only if there’s a full moon and an ‘r’ in the month and you touch your nose while turning around three times. Or some such. Cleveland is charged with assembling the team that will cast the complicated spell in order to allow the dying Story return to her own world, a Dirty Dozen of freaks and dropouts that must all play some part in the ceremony. All he must do is figure out who does what and when. This slow, convoluted casting, cued up by a taciturn Korean mother’s half-remembered old folk tale, conveniently allows Cleveland to do all those things that a diligent writer might do. He gets out and meets people, asks questions. He observes and listens. This emergence, which is told in a mundane array of episodic chapters, is the second half of the film. Shyamalan, who appears to be making it up as he goes along, even has his snooty film critic explain to Cleveland the various cookie-cutter rules of Hollywood storytelling, describing how the permutations might play out in a supposedly barbed taunt that only casts the directors own fluency and motivation in a further poor light.
In casting himself as a pivotal character, a blocked writer whose half-finished book holds the key to the future happiness of the world no less, Shyamalan displays an unfettered egotism only previously suspected. His is a strange, blank performance, played mostly in close-up. He’s no actor and this time, as director, fares little better. From the get go, Lady In The Water has a rushed, unfinished feel, a sepulchral pace and a rapidly dwindling interest. There is none of the grand staging, inventive camera positioning or other directorial grace notes Shyamalan has shown before. The toothy Snarks offer a few ‘boo’ moments to maintain attention levels but otherwise the production follows the storyline, being flat, cramped and bland.
Not even the usually dependable ensemble cast (and ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle) can rescue the film, itself an exemplar of the maxim that ‘cinema starts on the page’ as any of its own crippled allusions; to writers and their interior voices or faith in the salvation of imagination. Giamatti is the only one here with any presence, even if his stuttering, damaged loner never emerges as a true hero. Damsel in distress Bryce Dallas Howard does well initially, her pale features giving her a compelling, otherworldly look, but she is removed from the second half of the film, huddled in a shower cubicle spouting riddles while Cleveland rushes around enabling her, and his own, self-actualisation. Almost everyone we are introduced to in the building is a writer of some description; novelist, diarist or storyteller. One guy loves crosswords so much we never see him without a pencil and a folded newspaper. His ten year old son helps by reading secret messages hidden on the back of a cornflakes box, much in the same way Shyamalan does, you might think. These eccentric wordsmiths, and their various fellow tenants, are all wilfully inventive, wise and well-meaning and, crucially, able to suspend disbelief on cue, especially when the visitor called ‘Story’ arrives out of the blue. The film is not peopled with characters – these are beasts of burden, all carrying heavy metaphors and waiting to drop them off at appropriate points to supply the plot. Curiously, the heavier the metaphor, the less dramatic weight it adds.