With Lady In The Water, M. Night Shyamalan seems to be taunting the army of critics and moviegoers who turned on him after The Village. Annoyed by The Village's humorless homegrown mythology? Then enjoy a follow-up with four times the convoluted, artlessly conveyed folklore. Irritated by Shyamalan's public megalomania and distracting Hitchcockian cameos? Then check out Shyamalan casting himself as a visionary writer whose brilliant ideas have world-changing consequences. The endlessly self-reflexive Lady begs to be read as an elaborate treatise on Shyamalan the auteur and master storyteller. But in deconstructing his oeuvre, Shyamalan has unwittingly destroyed its magic. In the process, he's made a film that's paradoxically deeply personal, yet strangely inert, with weird undercurrents of bitterness and naked sincerity.
Playing an even less suave character than usual, Paul Giamatti stars as a depressed superintendent who stumbles upon a magical sea nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) who seems to be the product of a drunken three-way between Ron Howard, Darryl Hannah in Splash, and E.T. With the help of a motley gang of neighbors, Giamatti tries to help Howard achieve self-actualization, a process that involves a magical flying creature, tree monsters, and avoiding a wolfish beastie. Or something like that.
At best, Shyamalan's genius for melding the fantastic with the mundane rivals that of Steven Spielberg or Stephen King, but that gift fails him here. Shyamalan's attempts at creating an ethereal, fairy-tale atmosphere are compromised by a preponderance of thinly drawn caricatures, at least one of which, a sass-talking Asian hoochie, seems to have wandered in from a Mad TV skit. Howard's strangely lifeless mystical travails, meanwhile, mostly inspires indifferent shrugs. In yet another self-conscious dig at critics, Shyamalan makes a film and book reviewer (Bob Balaban) a sour heavy. Yet Balaban's wry cynicism ends up being the film's most engaging aspect pretty much by default. Shyamalan seems to hold bitter scolds like Balaban responsible for taking all the wonder out of movies and storytelling, but with fiascoes like The Village and this shockingly misconceived, poorly executed effort, he's doing a fine job of it himself.