Over the course of his last five thrillers, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has cooked up a workable formula. He lays down all the necessary clues at the outset, hopes the audience forgets about them, and then picks them up later when needed.
Yet it has become easier for audiences to spot this method, and to single out logic gaps. A critical backlash based on this caused his last film, the not-bad “The Village” (2004), to swell to a turkey of “Ishtar”
Critics often forget the sheer visual, visceral skill that Shyamalan still possesses. He has a truly unique sense of space and movement that burrows right into the back of the brain and the stuff of nightmares.
And so his newest film, “Lady in the Water,” is also not bad, full of odd holes and plot troubles, but rich with beautiful ideas (and dark, shimmery cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle).
The film is set in a Philadelphia apartment complex, where superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) cares for his tenants with a dutifulsadness. Suddenly, a strange, beautiful girl called Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) rises out of the swimming pool.
Story must return to her Blue World, but a growling, CGI beastie of matted grass hinders her journey. So Cleveland must decipher an old fairy tale about the Narfs and the Scrunts, figuring out which of his neighbors fits into each of the predetermined roles (the Healer, the Guardian, the Interpreter, etc.), to help her.
Based on a bedtime story that Shyamalan spun for his children, the film falls between audiences. Children would probably like it, if they cared about the problems and hang-ups of silly grown-ups (there is only one, minor child character). But children should stay away, because for some reason, Shyamalan decided to make his evil beasties very scary, with loud growls and sudden jump-shocks geared for
Moreover, Shyamalan depicts a particularly haughty, humorless film critic (Bob Balaban) that lives in the apartment complex and causes trouble. And then Shyamalan himself plays a writer whose work is so great and important that it will not be appreciated until years after his death.
Is this revenge for “The Village”? And does Shyamalan truly believe his work is not appreciated with the vast amounts of money and acclaim he has accumulated? This is a supremely petulant, unflattering portrait of the man many call Hitchcock’s heir. Hitchcock learned early on to take his lumps, and never once had to remind anyone of his greatness. That’s a good skill: Let the story tell itself and save the sour grapes.