*Lady in the Water (PG-13)
Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
M. Night Shyamalan doesn't like film critics. That hardly comes as shocking news what filmmaker does like critics? but he puts us explicitly on notice in Lady in the Water with a character who is, indeed, a film critic ... and the object of some derision for his "presumption" that he can always see through a movie's plot and know what the filmmaker was thinking.
That is, perhaps, fair enough. But aren't film critics merely people who love movies a whole bunch? And hasn't Shyamalan trained movie lovers, whether we subsequently write about the movies we see or not, to expect the "unexpected," to expect the twist ending to the point where with his last film, The Village, the twist was all the film had to offer, even if it was shockingly banal?
Is it too much of a spoiler to reveal that, refreshingly, Lady in the Water does not have anything like a twist at its ending? And that, even if it did, there would still have been stuff to enjoy on the journey to that ending? Not that there aren't little twists along the way though they are, alas, pretty foreseeable if you are, in fact, a presumptuous film critic or even a halfway-serious moviegoer who is familiar with the necessary conventions of storytelling.
That's not so bad, because the peculiar and oddly cerebral beauty of Lady is that it is a movie about, well, the concepts and conventions of storytelling. The Lady's name is, perhaps almost too pointedly, Story, and she is a kind of sea nymph and a kind of muse ... But I won't tell you much more than that, because a lot of the pleasure and the suspense of the film comes from how her story unfolds; how apartment-building superintendent Cleveland Heep, who rescues her (sort of) from the complex's swimming pool one night, learns her story, and how his story unfolds.
One of Shyamalan's great talents as a visual storyteller and why he is often likened to Steven Spielberg is that, even in his less-than-successful films, he finds spirit and mystery in the ordinary, and that is certainly the case here. He creates a palpable bubble of fantasy around The Cove, the apartment complex, partly by dispensing with the disbelief of characters as they are introduced to the strangeness the situation they find themselves in. Shyamalan lets us presume there's that word again that some characters here may scoff at the fact that there's a sea nymph living in their pool, but he lets the explanations and the convincing and the coming around to acceptance happen off-screen.
And still ... it's easier to appreciate Lady in the Water than it is to embrace it emotionally. The always- wonderful Paul Giamatti as Cleveland is damn near heartbreaking, but Bryce Dallas Howard as the Lady is a chilly presence. We may be able to easily accept her fantastical origins, but getting caught up in her charisma does not happen for us like it does for the denizens of The Cove. Lady wants us to be sad and hopeful and in awe about a lot of things, but it didn't make me actually feel much of anything. It is, perhaps, too self-consciously about how a story is made real at the expense of actually making a story real.