By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; C01
"Lady in the Water" doesn't have a cute kid who sees dead people, but it has something intriguingly better: a pallid, otherworldly, watery being called Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who sets the stage for a mesmerizing bedside yarn with all-but-apocalyptic dimension.
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan may never match the commercial success of "The Sixth Sense," which held audiences in its thrall to the tune of almost $300 million. But "Lady in the Water," a captivating amalgam of mystery, thriller and mythic fantasy, eclipses his 1999 debut for sheer inventiveness, audacity and narrative derring-do.
When Story emerges from a swimming pool behind a dingy Philadelphia apartment building and into the arms of its bewildered superintendent, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), he learns she needs protection. But from what? Slowly the houseguest reveals that she's a "narf," a nymph who has been sent by her people to find a man of deep significance. She knows only that he is a writer whose words will affect the course of humanity. But she dares not leave Cleveland's apartment because of marauding creatures in the wooded area just beyond the run-down high-rise.
Cleveland seeks help from his Korean neighbor Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung) and her mother, Mrs. Choi (June Kyoto Lu), a cantankerous old lady who knows -- from stories she heard as a child -- all about narfs, marauding "scrunts" and terrifying monkeylike beings known as "tartutics" that lurk in trees.
The plot follows the filmmaker's familiar strategy, in which seemingly insignificant episodes and characters accumulate like bricks to become a grand structure. As Shyamalan aficionados have come to appreciate, that building is inlaid everywhere with narrative twists. And Cleveland, a guy who has resigned himself to a life plunging toilets, soon understands that he's at the beginning of something significant. A mission. He accepts the challenge.
It's easy to see why Disney, Shyamalan's backer for his previous four movies, withdrew from the project after reading the script. "Lady in the Water," now a Warner Bros. film, is more complex -- and just plain weird -- than anything he has attempted before.
It is peopled with disconcerting characters, including the stammering antihero, a room full of potheads and the almost funereal Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), a humorless book and film critic, who despises most movies (you can imagine his reviews of Disney flicks) and serves as the movie's postmodern comic relief. And Shyamalan, who has made a tradition of brief cameos in his films, gives himself a surprisingly hefty role as another resident of Cleveland's building.
But Disney's withdrawal is a gain for viewers who value fanciful storytelling that's not afraid to follow its most eccentric impulses.
Shyamalan has never shied from high-wire risk, and the very unevenness of his work, ranging from the sublime "Sixth Sense" to the disastrous "The Village," is testament to that courageous sensibility. Should commercial consideration always be the sine qua non, the lodestar of American filmmaking? Hopefully not. If the ultimate goal is entertainment, then "Lady in the Water" enthusiastically rises to the task.
In a movie laden with enough symbolism, shamanism and mythic lore to make Joseph Campbell dance a tribal jig, Shyamalan never forgets to have fun. Interspersed throughout the film is a deft humor that not only offers further insight into its characters, but also allows the audience to take a breath before negotiating the next story corridor. At one point, Cleveland is waiting patiently for translation as Mrs. Choi is unleashing a flurry of strident banter upon her daughter. After giving Cleveland the information he's so desperate for, a flustered Young-Soon adds that her mother "also told me I should be married to a dentist."
At the center of all this is Giamatti, whose performance demands short-list consideration come award time. He seems to grow with every role and, here, you particularly notice the very expressiveness of his eyes, variously furtive, shy, mysterious, observant, even brooding -- and always haunted.
Until now, Shyamalan's work has been one of masterful trickery, designed to keep audiences spellbound until the end credits. But for the first time, the filmmaker illuminates a world beyond scheme, beyond the shell games of his earlier films. In "Lady in the Water," we no longer think of his characters as mere slaves of the narrative but mazes unto themselves. The eventual outcome of their lives is something we contemplate long after the movie has ended. That's the mark of an artist who makes it his business to push the boundaries of storytelling in Hollywood. And that's exciting.
Lady in the Water (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some frightening sequences.