A review of “Lady in the Water” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: PG-13 for frightening sequences

Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

 

 

Mythic fairy tales are tricky business; toeing a razor-thin line between the enchanting and the downright ridiculous. M. Night Shyamalan takes a stab, shunning his horror roots and traveling this illusory road with a well-crafted and well-intentioned misstep.

Thank goodness two hours in the dark with Paul Giamatti is always a good thing. Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, a nebbish building manager of The Cove apartments with a gentle manner and a severe stutter.

Shyamalan establishes a mood and establishes it early; heady with atmosphere and the promise of something to come. It arrives in the form of an ethereal narf (sea nymph) named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), fresh from the Blue World and splashing about in the complex pool searching for salvation. Story is in danger of being attacked by the vicious scrunts, grassy werewolves (cum gnarled nature holdovers from “The Village”) determined to keep Story from her ultimate destiny.

The fairy-tale tangent of the film is its weakest, bogged down in excruciating detail that’s as difficult to track as it is to swallow. Story’s objective is a muddled mess of supposition and mythology, posing more questions than answers.

As Cleveland painstakingly pieces together the mysteries of Story’s presence (with the help of an elderly Korean tenant with a bottomless knowledge of narf lore) the light goes on: it’s up to him to fulfill her mission and return her to whence she came.

The residents of The Cove – a motley crew of wacky nonconformists – are the saviors of “Lady”, their madcap energy and good-natured resolve keeping the narrative afloat with a compassionate and urgent sense of community.

Shyamalan’s characters are too sharply etched – the persnickety and arrogant film critic (Bob Balaban), the neurotic writer with a bad case of block (Shyamalan himself in a neat turn of conceit) and his bossy little sis (Sarita Choudhury), a crossword puzzle fiend (personal favorite Jeffrey Wright) and a passel of self-righteous slackers who lend new definition to the word. Their unlikely and endearing connection is the glue that keeps “Lady” from splintering under the pressure of fantasy overload.

Not surprisingly Giamatti punctuates his performance with some Oscar-worthy flashes, borne of an exquisitely underrated talent. Howard’s waiflike narf is pale and unearthly but considerably one-dimensional, never quite catching her spiritual groove.

This is not your mother’s bedtime story but rather a potentially intriguing vision of man and spirit conjoined in suburban harmony. Would that it could straddle both worlds.