Vainglorious, convoluted and just too precious for words, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” is destined to take its rightful place alongside “Dune,” “Showgirls” and “Legend” in the pantheon of spectacular misfires. These are the best of the worst, conceived by talented filmmakers just a bit too blazed on their own genius.
Nonetheless, they are movies that fascinate me, and though watching “Lady in the Water” is a laughable, sometimes infuriating proposition, I find myself harboring some real affection for it.
Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) says the idea of a delicate water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) who emerges from an inner-city swimming pool sprang from bedtime stories he told his children, and — yeah — the wacky, serpentine mythology feels like something he made up on the fly.
Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) is flawlessly cast as Cleveland Heep, a stuttering apartment building manager who tries to surmise the true identity of the coltish, red-haired young woman (Howard also was Shyamalan’s leading lady in “The Village”) who takes refuge in his poolside cottage. Cleveland learns that she’s a Narf, a race of enchanted, peace-loving sea nymphs.
And then it gets weird. To summon a giant eagle that will ferry her home, the Narf must meet her human “vessel.” She also must avoid death at the hands of the Narfs’ sworn enemy, the Scrunt, a hyenalike predator with grassy fur. There’s also something called the Tartutic, three wrathful monkey gods who keep the cosmic peace.
Aware that the Narf’s salvation lies in the literary mechanics of a bedtime fable, Cleveland assembles a fashionably dispossessed cross section of building residents — a single father played by Jeffrey Wright (“Shaft”), a pod of stoners led by an underused Jared Harris (“I Shot Andy Warhol”), a meathead (Freddy Rodriguez) who works out only half of his body — to put the story right.
Quite transparently, Shyamalan wants to move us, to appeal to our sense of community and individual purpose, and there’s something sweet — and scary — in how nakedly he goes about it. At the same time, he actively seeks to alienate select viewers. An irksome film critic (Bob Balaban) functions not just as a rebuke of critics, but any movie snob who would dare try to prefigure Shyamalan’s famously twisty plots.
At one point, Balaban’s character expresses his distaste for movies that feature a clichéd, rain-soaked climax. Well, “Lady in the Water” ends in the rain, and the insinuation is clear: Shyamalan knows more about his audiences’ needs than do critics.
Maybe, but a clear rebuke from audiences could restore an element gone missing from his remarkable artistic palate: A little humility.
>> Rated PG-13 (some frightening images), 110 minutes. C