See, we admire M. Night Shyamalan for committing to his vision, for telling his stories no matter how much suspension of disbelief they may require, because usually there's a nice payoff at the end. He has a strong track record with us for making spooky, goose-bump-y films where the greatest horrors are loss and regret. Hell, we liked The Village! But even we have our limits of admiration, and Lady in the Water may have pushed us a little too far.
We actually have no problem with most of the basic premise: that Story, a nymph from an aquatic race that used to inspire humans, has appeared in the swimming pool of a Philadelphia apartment complex, trying to reestablish the connection between her race and ours, while being hunted by a foul critter that looks like a wolf made of grass and brush. No, really. We're okay with that; it's the fantasy genre, after all.
Where he loses us -- and loses us big-time -- is in the casting of the writer whom Story must meet and inspire. This writer will pen something important, something that will inspire one of the nation's great leaders and lead to major change throughout the world. This writer will so shake the very roots of society that he will be martyred for writing his book. So, let's review: the writer is talented, inspired, destined to make a lasting impact on the world and so revolutionary he will be killed for it. Who does Shyamalan cast as the writer? Himself.
We've tolerated Shyamalan's minor cameos in his other films, although they did strike us as a little self-congratulatory. "Look! I'm the new Hitchcock!" Dude: you have to wait for someone else to call you the new Hitchcock. You can't just call yourself that and expect it to stick. (Otherwise, we'd declare ourselves the new Queen Latifah several times a day.) But his appearance in Lady in the Water is just cringe-worthy in its self-aggrandizement.
Frankly, it's even worse than the treatment given to the film critic in the movie. The critic is antisocial, arrogant, snide, cynical and wrong about everything...and he gets killed by the lawn monster, making him the movie's only fatality. Watching that whole character arc was like being forced to witness an episode of primal scream therapy. Okay, dude, you've assaulted the character of critics everywhere and killed us in effigy. Do you feel better now? Think maybe you can get over having your work analyzed and critiqued like every other major artist in the world?
The casting of the writer and the whole film-critic business really denigrate what could have otherwise been an enchanting film. Shyamalan does beautiful work with cinematography, and we've long been fans of his use of color and the way he sets up tension. The performances are outstanding, and essential to selling the fantasy of the story. Jeffrey Wright, Sarita Choudhury, Freddie Rodriguez and the other denizens of the apartment complex are delightful, and to his immense credit, Bob Balaban seems to have a great time as the evil, doomed critic.
We've only ever seen Bryce Dallas Howard in Shyamalan pictures speaking weird dialogue, and while she's certainly fine at that, we'd love to see what she's capable of in a more realistic role. But Paul Giamatti is, as usual, the standout of this cast. As Cleveland Heep, the superintendent who finds Story and takes on the role of her protector, Giamatti is not only funny and instantly relatable, he's dignified in his tragic loneliness, never allowing his character to become a schlump or a target of derision. What may at first seem like the behavior of a pushover is eventually revealed to be infinite patience and kindness. It's a great performance, and we'd be hard-pressed to name someone who could do as much with the character as Giamatti does.
Honestly, we even have to admit that Shyamalan makes a perfectly fine actor. There's really nothing wrong with his performance as the writer who will save all mankind -- except that he fucking wrote the part. Between the snit over his studio's concerns, the film-critic mess in the movie and casting himself as Christ with a typewriter, Shyamalan seems like he's got some growing up to do. That's the thing about bedtime stories: they're supposed to be told to children, not by them.