Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says sea nymphs in the swimming pool are a sign of insufficient chlorine.
"Once, man and those in the water were linked. They inspired us and spoke of the future. Man listened and it became real. But man doesn't listen very well …"
When most of us tell a bedtime story, we don't have $70 million or more for special effects. However, most of us aren't M. Night Shyamalan, the man who had The Sixth Sense of what would make a hit movie a few years back. The Philadelphia-based director says he first came up with the story for Lady in the Water as a bedtime story for his kids. Either the story was gentler without the special effects or, as the offspring of the man who would be Hitchcock, his kids have a higher tolerance for scary stories.
Facts of the Case
When we first see apartment manager Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), he's coping with a big, hairy bug in one of the units; he eventually crushes the scary beast with a broom. After this adventure, he's off to greet a new tenant, taking the man on a tour of the building and introducing us to the tenants. Pay attention; there will be a quiz later.
Heep's a stutterer who feels like he has no real purpose in life. For now, though, his purpose is finding the nighttime swimmer who's been heard splashing. One night, Heep spots the woman, just for a minute, then falls into the water himself. When he awakens, Heep's back in his little caretaker's cottage. So is the woman; she's sitting on his couch naked. He can't remember what happened—but this is a nice, uplifting movie, so he knows it's not that.
"Did you pull me out? Where are you from?" he asks.
"The Blue World," she replies. Her name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village), and she's a narf. Whatever that is.
Heep asks the woman to go, but she's scared. Time passes, and we next see that she spent the night sleeping in Heep's lap (she's got his shirt on now). For reasons unknown, Heep decides to carry the still-sleeping Story out into the night, but is deterred by a snarling beast—and Story's screams when she awakes.
When he casually asks college student Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung, Robot Stories) what a "narf" is, she says, "It's an Eastern bedtime story, Mr. Heep. I do not remember it." A quick trip to her grandmother's place gets Heep up to speed on the basics: a narf is a sea nymph who must be "seen by the one human chosen for her." That isn't so easy, since "scrunts" (huge, hairy beasts that hide in the grass) like to destroy narfs while they're on land.
Before Story can meet her "vessel" and return to the water, Heep must find her chosen helpers among his tenants and stir them to action. As all of this happens, news reports heard in the background talk about looming war.
Although there's only one death in the movie, there are a few scary moments in Lady in the Water. They're parceled out sparingly, as are the details of the "bedtime story" that comes to life. While I'd have liked more details upfront, it seems to reflect the way Shyamalan developed the story, expanding it with each retelling. "The second time I told it, it had more detail and it just grew into this obsessive feature of our household," he says in the featurette about the original bedtime story (which, by the way, is out in book form).
Lady in the Water weaves a grand-scale story (Story's here to bring peace to the world, after all) within the small-scale confines of Heep's apartment building. Except for a couple of trips to grandmother's house, everything happens in the apartment complex. It's not a cost-cutting move, but a way of keeping the movie focused on the theme of ordinary people gathering together to do something extraordinary.
The movie sets up its story at a glacial pace. But about 40 minutes in, about the point when I was about to write off this one as a dull misfire, the scrunt attacks. This provides an undercurrent of urgency that makes the last two-thirds of the movie suspenseful. M. Night Shyamalan tells a story for which you know the ending, at least roughly, yet he plays with viewers' expectations enough to leave a few surprises. Even knowing in the back of my mind that Heep and his friends would succeed in their mission, I had doubts in a few spots.
The center of the movie is Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep. He's convincing as a stuttering man who sees himself as a failure and seeks a higher purpose in life, yet his transformation into a man of action doesn't seem out of place. He's likeable from the start as the put-upon apartment manager, and leaves us thinking there's more to the character even when Shyamalan just drops hints. As Story, Bryce Dallas Howard captures a look of otherworldly beauty and conveys emotions simply, as befits a sea nymph who has had little or no contact with humanity.
For smaller roles, Shyamalan sketched out characters in broad strokes, then cast actors who made the most of their limited characters. Standouts among the supporting cast are Cindy Cheung as Young-Soon Choi, a student who seems thoroughly modern but soon reveals her fascination with her grandmother's stories from Korea and a longing to connect with the past, and Sarita Choudhury (Mississippi Masala) as Anna, who helps Heep marshal his forces to save Story.
A lot of this movie was filmed at night, yet the images have a crisp clarity that doesn't obscure the action, except when Shyamalan wants to. He turns a routine setting into a scene of mystery and danger. It's backed up with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track that makes the wind rustling through a quiet night sound real.
There's no commentary, but this DVD includes "Reflections of Lady in the Water," a 34-minute video diary. It shows that Bryce Dallas Howard appears to be a normal, Earth-and-land human being when not being narflike in the movie. If you're a parent, you'll like the fact that it shows your kids that the scrunts are just puppets. This one isn't as thorough as the ones with the latest version of King Kong, but it does a decent job of mixing commentary with behind-the-scenes footage of shooting. There's a gag reel of bloopers and actors breaking out laughing at the dialogue (Did you really want to show us that?) and an audition reel which shows actors demonstrating their gagging for a retching scene. Both of those are brief. There's also a short piece called "Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story" plugging the book.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
M. Night Shyamalan takes on a large on-camera role in this one. He's not a bad actor, but taking such a big part in the story seems a little vain. Remember, Hitchcock only did cameos!
It's even cockier than having an unlikeable character who's a movie critic deconstructing the story. Nahhh, I'm not angry at him over that one, though I suspect it led to more than a few devastating reviews. However, it telegraphs loudly the ways Shyamalan toys with his audience.
The movie itself requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. After all, most people would call the cops and be done with it upon finding a narf in the swimming pool. It's hard to imagine a group of actual human beings banding together to get her back to the Blue World without even a grain of suspicion creeping in.
How often do you get an uplifting, upbeat horror film? The ending suggests that there's something more to Story's mission than bringing inspiration to just one person, since all of those she meets find inspiration from the deeps. Shyamalan creates a mood of foreboding, one that's familiar if you've seen his previous movies. His idea of a fairytale atmosphere can be Grimm at times, though it eventually proves hopeful and optimistic.
Not guilty. Next time you tell your kids a bedtime story, though, be sure to jot down notes and get an agent.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story"
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