According to the IMDb, Lady in the Water cost $75 million to make, and to judge from the finished product, the great majority of that went to some very fine hallucinogenics, indeed.

This is not an intelligible film. It is the work of a writer-director who has lost all connection to reality. And given how loudly the advertising and the film scream that this is all a a fairy tale, that is an exercise in narrative for its own sake, this is a shocking affront to the very concept of storytelling.

I shall now recap the plot, in small chunks: Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the superintendent at The Cove, a Philadelphia apartment complex on the edge of a forest. One night, he hears splashing in the pool which is supposed to be empty after dusk. He falls into the pool and is saved by a young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, whose entire performance is to look pensive and speak without contractions) who tells him that she is a "narf."* Cleveland consults with the Asian family that lives in the apartment, and discovers that narfs are a type of water nymph that leave their Blue World for our world in order to give us direction and inspiration in our lives. He also learns that narfs are hunted by "scrunts."] Scrunts are wolf-like beasties that look like grass. Once a narf has fulfilled its duty, the Great Eatlon, a big eagle, will carry it back to the Blue World. A scrunt cannot attack a narf in the Great Eatlon's presence, or the Tartutic, a trio of evil monkeys, will kill it.

Story has come to inspire the Vessel, a man whose writings will change the world. Cleveland helps her find him, and then sends her back. But the scrunt attacks her, and Story doesn't know why the scrunt broke the rules until Cleveland finds out that she is the Madam Narf, the leader of all narfs, who apparently brokers deals with narfs to have sex for money. Cleveland must then round up all of the mythological figures who have come to live in the complex because they are drawn to the Vessel, so that in the narf's time of need they can band together to keep her safe from the scrunt.

Now, if I had written that myself, rather than simply relate it, you would think that I was a crazy person. You would be correct to do so. But it is M. Night Shyamalan who is the crazy person. He throws all of these ideas at the wall, and when none of them stick takes that as a sign that he should throw even more ideas at the wall. Given that there is a character named "Story," and given that Cleveland is given that huge chunk of exposition piecemeal as a series of bedtime stories, it's obvious that Shyamalan's game is to explore the idea of narrativity; but I do not think I approve of doing this by telling a story that is incoherent and has no point.

Because there will be no better point for me to mention this: the film opens with David Ogden Stiers narrating a short animation explaining the mythology involved, including virtually everything that Cleveland takes a whole film to discover. When David Ogden Stiers can clearly relate the whole plot of your movie in 45 seconds, it may be wise not to expand that plot to 100 minutes.

Shyamalan is a colossally arrogant ass. There is no justification for any moment of Lady in the Water except that he believes he is entitled to do anything he wants to do, because he is significant and important and far above the petty concerns of people like me who try to ferret out the meanings of things through criticism. This is not a guess. This is explicit in the film. Shyamalan, who has previously limited himself to gaudy cameos, has taken on a proper role in this film: Vick Ran, the Vessel, the man who drives the entire plot by being the one that Story must visit in order to inspire the great book that he will write, that will change the course of the world, but only after Vick is killed by an enemy of his message.

I am going to say it again, for clarity: in his latest film, M. Night Shyamalan has cast himself as Christ.

Also, the closest the film has to a villain is Harry Farber, the new tenant played by Bob Balaban. Harry is a film/book critic for the local paper. We know that he is a villain because he talks about how the situations going around him are clichés. Also, he gives Cleveland advice that turns out to be correct in every single detail, which Cleveland thereupon misinterprets, which leads Jeffrey Wright as The Mystic Negro to intone that Harry is evil for trying to interpret what other people should do with their lives. There is no trace of irony when this line is spoken, even though I as a viewer knew a) what Harry meant; b) precisely how Cleveland was going to misunderstand. The point of course is that Shyamalan is lashing out at critics for trying to tell people how to think. Except that Shyamalan's fallacy is to assume that The Village tanked because critics hated it, whereas it tanked because it sucked. And saying that audiences stay away from films that critics hate is a lie.

Shyamalan is a disgrace to narrative and to visual art. Let's stop that idiotic meme about "he's such a great stylist, he has such a natural way with images, it's just that his scripts are weak." He is not a great stylist. Nearly everything he has ever shown that he knows about how to make a film look interesting, he cribbed from Steven Spielberg. He is a one-trick pony: he creates foggy and forboding atmosphere and he's pretty good about using really...slow...tracking...shots and looooooong takes to build tension. He used his tricks to great effect in The Sixth Sense, to considerably less effect in Unbreakable, and by Signs he was just hoping that nobody would notice where he scribbled out George A. Romero's name and wrote his own in thick black crayon.

I was just yesterday complaining about films that look good for no apparent reason, which is different than films that look good for a good reason, and one of the people who makes good films look very good is Christopher Doyle, who does practically no films outside of Southeast Asia, but was brought on board for this. Perhaps after all of those luxuriant Wong Kar-Wai films he decided he wanted to do something stone ugly, and that is why this film is so indifferently lit and grey. Or perhaps it is that he read the script and gave up. But this is a tediously shot film: a handful of scenes involve lighting fog and rain to decent effect, but there is hardly one frame that struck me as being nice to look at in any way. But to call Shyamalan a great stylist when he actually leeches the talent out of a very talented man is laughable, except I'm too angry to laugh.

This was an agonizing experience. Every new character that wasn't Cleveland was a cringing stereotype, and to see cringing stereotypes played by some very good actors was not a happy experience. Every plot twist was either predictable from the start of the film, or so convulted that I still do not understand what happened. If there is a single redeeming facet it is Paul Giamatti and his game attempt to bring us into Cleveland's sad and limited life. But the reason it is sad is absurd as presented (the first time I've ever laughed at the words, "he killed your wife and child") and his redemption is ordained from those soggy David Ogden Stiers word at the very start.

Lady in the Water is atrocious. And the man who wrote and directed it is an arrogant prick of the highest order. I have not had a less pleasurable time watching a movie this year. I resent that this film was ever made.

1/10