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M. Night Shyamalan's defensive fairy tale drowns in self-consciousness

The most basic question heading into M. Night Shyamalan's newest film, Lady in the Water, is if the filmmaker would rebound from the mistakes he made in his last one, The Village, and return to the relative glories of the preceding three -- Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense. Those three were triumphs of theme-faithful plot, atmosphere, and impeccably clever storytelling, respectively. The Village was a failure for many reasons, most notably because it failed to understand the principle that the monsters should always be real.

Lady in the Water takes care of the monster question early in the film. Yes, this time the monsters are real. Unfortunately, though it corrects that mistake, it makes many new ones -- some of which are spectacularly awful.

Unlike Shyamalan's other films, Lady announces the truth of its plot very early on: Once upon a time man was at peace and co-existed with some sea nymphs in a kind of Atlantean bliss. But man decided he liked possessions too much, so he spurned happiness (and the sea nymphs) for the opportunity to have it all. Flash forward thousands of years and wars later to present-day Philadelphia, where man is in desperate need of salvation. So the sea nymphs re-establish contact to help man save himself. And that's not to even mention the monsters that try to foil the sea nymphs' beneficent plans. (This is all in the first three minutes of the movie.)

Bryce Dallas Howard plays the titular sea nymph. Her casting is the only stroke of perfection in the film. The actress has an otherworldly, alien beauty, her skin and blankly crystal eyes as pale and sterile as the porcelain tile of a bathroom floor (though maybe I make that association because she spends so much time in the movie sitting on one).

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Paul Giamatti -- once again playing a schlub -- leads as Cleveland Heep, the building superintendent in the apartment complex that the "lady in the water" has been sent to save. Giamatti's presence here -- along with other noted "good" actors such as Jeffrey Wright and Bob Balaban -- makes one wonder if Shyamalan required that the cast sign on without reading the script.

Lady in the Water seems to be an answer movie to the critics of The Village. Just as much as it is about sea nymphs and Cleveland Heep, Lady is about examining and deconstructing the mechanics of how a fictional story is created, built, evolved, and resolved. Because Lady in the Water isn't just about the fantastical creatures that populate the movie, but also about the fairy tales and bedtime stories from which they spring, Shyamalan can break down his own writing process, comment on it, and make it transparent for the audience to see. He literally has the characters discuss the "plot" of the fairy tale that they come to realize they are living and try to determine how best to shepherd the story to a happy ending.

Shyamalan tells the audience the rules of this bedtime story as the film progresses, and they seem to develop organically, almost as if, yes, he's making it up as he's going along, like he's telling a bedtime story to the audience. Here's one bad thing about his premise: Successful bedtime stories are ones where you're asleep by the time the storyteller gets to the end. No matter how ridiculous the contrivances of plot are, you usually aren't awake to see them exposed by the finale. Lady is successful in this one way: I did wish I was asleep by the end.

The metafiction of Lady is not without precedent. Recently, Adaptation treaded in these waters too. But it got away with it because it poked fun at itself, to the point where it giddily had the greatest descent into cliché in film history. Unlike Adaptation, Lady does take itself seriously. It too descends into cliché, and it too calls attention to that fact, but it drowns because of its eagerness for moral weight.

Coming out of Lady in the Water, there's a new question: Where does Shyamalan go from here? Perhaps he should steal one of his own storytelling devices, spring a gotcha moment, and work in a completely unexpected genre or style. He has proven in his films that he can fool some of the people some of the time, but he needs to learn that he can't fool all of the people all of the time.

Lady in the Water

Opening Friday, July 21st

Multiple locations

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