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EW review: 'Lady in the Water' all wet

Talent of Shyamalan, Giamatti wasted

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Entertainment Weekly

Lady in the Water
Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti in "Lady in the Water."


M. Night Shyamalan
Paul Giamatti

(Entertainment Weekly) -- Few moviegoers had heard of M. Night Shyamalan in 1999 when "The Sixth Sense" debuted. But the banality of famelessness ceased to be the filmmaker's problem the minute young Haley Joel Osment began seeing dead people.

Suddenly the storyteller was the story, and a corker of a Hollywood success saga at that. A twentysomething writer-director, Shyamalan instantly established a name for himself as a self-confident filmmaker of high compositional standards. More important, "The Sixth Sense" was a hit, a crowd-pleaser: This starry Night showed himself to have a golden commercial touch.

With "Unbreakable" (2000), "Signs" (2002), and "The Village" (2004), Shyamalan continued to plow his field of dreams, a place where specially gifted Shyamalan kind of men sort out the real, true, and important from the hoo-ha everyone else is feeding them. To mash myths only slightly, a Shyamalan man is a wizard trapped in a world of Muggles.

As, it seems, the filmmaker himself has come to believe is his own fate.

Muggledom runs amok in "Lady in the Water," Shyamalan's most alienating and self-absorbed project to date. His most fanciful, too, since the narrative springs from a fairy tale the director made up for his two daughters: A nymphlike creature named Story ("The Village's" Bryce Dallas Howard), who's actually a magical "narf" from the Blue World, gets stranded among the non-narf residents of a depressed, earthbound apartment complex haphazardly managed by a stuttering drabster named Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti).

Story needs to get back to where she once belonged, but she's thwarted by an unpleasant, wiry, drooling creature called a scrunt, and it's up to Cleveland to rally the rest of the circus-tent tenants (among them Shyamalan himself as a sensitive writer whose work, Story prophesies, will profoundly affect future generations) to help Dorothy get back to Kansas. I mean, to help Story get back to the Blue World.

Most are moved by the pretty narf's woes, but one is not: It is the movie's proudest and biggest fart joke that the building's newest resident is a "books and movie critic" named Mr. Farber, a pinched sourball played by Bob Balaban with the same impressive dyspepsia he brought to the role of network executive on "Seinfeld." Nothing charms, impresses, delights, amuses, or moves Mr. Farber. He doesn't believe in narfs, movie magic, or communal tenant activity. And in the end, it gives away nothing to reveal that the killjoy is dispatched by the scrunt with nary a grunt.

But while the subplot is an up-yours to actual critics and a wink-wink to civilians, the rise and fall of Mr. Farber results in something far punier: The amount of story time devoted to such an inconsequential naysayer emphasizes the movie's very smallness, and the inner creative discontent at its core.

Why a filmmaker so gifted and fortunate should scrunt and scratch his private itches in public -- in front of the very audience that has lauded him -- is a mystery too deep for this Muggle. Was the reception of his last film not quite as Blue Worldly as he wished it to be? I guess it takes a "Village" to raise a narf.

EW Grade: C

(This is an edited version of Lisa Schwarzbaum's original EW review. For the full review, click hereexternal link. To add your own comment, click hereexternal link.)

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