Lady in the Water is the latest film from M. Night Shayamalan, the auteur who exploded onto the scene so brilliantly he's become doomed to a level of scrutiny beyond anyone I can think of in film history. Worse yet, since he works by choice exclusively in the Suspense/Thriller genre, he is to a degree flexing the same filmmaking muscle's each time out, lending to a tendancy of not only comparing the merit of each film, but an internal comparison against his other works. That, Manoj, is the critical baggage you must drag through the airport of cinema.
Lady in the Water presents, from its opening credits on, a modern day fairly tale. One that takes ordinary people (a stuttering apartment building superintendant played by Paul Giamatti, for one) in an ordinary location (the aforementioned apartment building, with a cast of iconic characters) and traces their reaction to the extraordinary around and within. Even though the this is an ancient Eastern tale, the characters in it have names like narfs and scrunts (really) and so on. It's a tall tale, but is it a good one? When your stretching this far, you have to be very careful.
The film succeeds where Night is most comfortable, peering around corners but not quite, talking about things without mentioning them directly. This is the classic tension that he employs so well, and it's present in this film, though with fewer moments overall where you're likely to jump out of your seat. Where the film fails is the extent to which Night allows us to peak around the corners, what is allowed to walk around the corners, and the detail to which the mythology is laid out. If the Village prematurely revealed and then allowed too extended a view of its monsters, then Lady in the Water invites them over for tea and scones and proceeds to talk them to death, every last secret.
Night wants to make believers out of all of us. Yet, I'm not sure if he wants us to actually buy into this tale, or if he wants to prove to himself that he can make us buy in. There is so much self-referentialism at work here, I'm left feeling that perhaps this was more of an exercise than anything else. He even gives himself a major role in the film. He's not bad, but the whole thing is... yicky. In the end, he did make me believe one thing: Somewhere in Lady in the Water is a very good suspense film, once you strip off the goofy creature names, keep them further out of view, take out the clever self-referencing, and the bloated cameo. Keep these elements in and you are left with Night's most unrealized film to date, and left scratching your head.
Yet, it's not nearly as bad as the critics make it out to be. When they decry the film as final proof of Night's fraud, it strikes of bitterness, and perhaps rightfully so. The only non-beastly bad guy in the film is a film critic, soulless and petty. Sadly, while the critics' scenes provide an inside joke or two to filmmakers, they also provide the most direct break from the suspension of disbelief this film so hopelessly clings to. Well, Night certainly got his, but the critics may have the last laugh when it comes to this film and potentially all of his future efforts.