Fairy tales work best when—either on screen or page—they suck you into their world and make you a part of the fantasy. There, you see the wonders unfold. You step through the wardrobe. Travel to Mordor. Or skip along the yellow brick road. On these journeys, you discover the complexities and personalities of these fantastic worlds by experiencing them. By walking these tales, the complicated myths become real and understood.

Lady in the Water is also a complex, fantasy-filled bedtime story—but told in a different and ultimately less effective way. It doesn't so much invite you into the world of the story as it displays people hearing about a story.

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep, superintendent of The Cove apartments

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep, superintendent of The Cove apartments

The mythic tale at the center of the film involves "those in the water" who, thousands of years ago, lived in concert with the earthbound man. They would inspire mankind as guides and muses. They made man better. But then, man's ugliness severed the bond. But still, the water people tried to reach man. The script by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village) treats this made-up myth as a story "from the East" that a group of everyday shmoes discovers may be true.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the dutiful and quiet superintendent of The Cove apartments. Hiding from the world because of past pain, Heep busies himself with repairing toilets and light fixtures. His mundane life is challenged when he discovers someone else hiding at The Cove—a woman called Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who's been living in the pool.

Heep discovers this woman is actually a Narf, one of those sea-nymph creatures from that Eastern bedtime story. She is there to touch and inspire one tenant who, if moved to continue working on a certain writing project, will change the world. But, according to the myth, there is danger. Wolf-like Scrunts with matted grass hair prey on Story. The only hope is for specific residents of The Cove to band together and return Story to her Blue World safely.

Bryce Dallas Howard is Story, the lady in the water

Bryce Dallas Howard is Story, the lady in the water

The film's thematic pulse rests in the mission of The Cove's rogue gallery to send Story home. Heep uncovers all the details of how this supposedly happens by asking questions about the original fairy tale to college girl Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung). Her Korean-speaking mother remembers being told the story "as if it were a prayer. Like it was true." According to Young-Soon's mother, the story featured many humans with special powers who were drawn to where the Narf would arrive. Together, they ensure her safety. There is a Guardian, a Symbolist, a Guild, and a Healer. The Cove residents need to figure out who is who in order to save Story.

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The wonderful message at the core of Shyamalan's tale is that everyone has a purpose. You may not know what it is or that you even have a gift, but you do. And too many of us spend our lives hiding from it or searching in vain. Lady's idea of searching for your purpose in life not only has similarities to the biblical notions of gifts and the body of Christ, but also hints at the idea that we are part of a larger world. We don't really know our part in a greater story, but we must have faith that it is there. Story says, "Man thinks he is alone in this … but you are connected."

June Kyoko Lu as Mrs. Choi and Cindy Cheung as Young-Soon Choi

June Kyoko Lu as Mrs. Choi and Cindy Cheung as Young-Soon Choi

The weaknesses start to show in Lady's narrative as Heep continues to unravel the old myth in order to discover what to do with Story. The first problem is that it feels like Heep goes back to Young-Soon about 900 times for more details, rules and specifics about the myth. Eventually, it feels like this is the longest bedtime story ever. Kids in the East apparently never get to sleep. There are just so many rules and details. Imagine if a movie tried to relate the details and complexities of The Lord of the Rings through talking. Ugh.

Secondly, the plot becomes less of a journey for Heep and friends and more of a literature criticism exercise. They deconstruct the myth to figure out how to spot which residents are which characters in the myth. Who is the Healer? Who makes up the Guild? This process starts off fun. There's a sense that The Cove residents are building their own ragtag little Lord of the Rings fellowship. They need to find this kind of person and this kind of person in order to pass the upcoming test. And you anticipate how their gifts will be used and realized. But then, as the story continues, the plot isn't really about people with gifts joining forces, but more like filling the holes in a predestined arc. What fun is it if they really have no say or no duty, but just need to be there because it's predestined? And honestly, the different roles in the myth turn out to have little more to do than just being there.

Ultimately, the whole community becomes part of this Story

Ultimately, the whole community becomes part of this Story

The third problem with Heep's journey is that it takes this little fairy tale into a meta-literature direction that can be distracting. The characters seem to know they are in a story and often comment on that. It's like those old cartoons when characters pull out the script of that episode to see what they should do next. While that idea is clever, the "We're in a movie" self-awareness goes too far and doesn't jibe with the mythic fairytale feel. This is mainly because a know-it-all-movie critic character (played brilliantly by Bob Balaban) is given too many speeches about how to identify certain characters and how you'll know what's about to come, and so on. It doesn't fit the mood. It's like The Wizard of the Oz crossed with Scream. There's also a heavy-handedness and self-indulgent aftertaste because it's obvious that Shyamalan is thumbing his nose at critics and making comments about filmmaking while filmmaking. All of this would be fine if it didn't feel so out of place inside a fantasy film.

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The plot's weaknesses eventually drain the magic out of this myth. The movie is typical Shyamalan—good quirky characters, well-crafted storytelling, thrilling tension, an effectively dark and broody atmosphere, and intriguing bigger themes to begin discussions. It also keeps you guessing as it unfolds (but Shyamalan fans should not expect his usual big twists or tricky storytelling). But there's just no childlike wonder or joy. It lacks the awe and giddiness of seeing life transform, like in Unbreakable. It lacks the heart that made you care when you realized Sixth Sense's secret. It lacks the connection with the characters that made Signs' ending feel so triumphant. And unlike those films, Lady in the Water's final legacy will be as an enjoyable tale that, in the end, is largely unmemorable.

Talk About It

  Discussion starters
  1. How do you see allusions to God and the Bible in the myth at the heart of Lady in the Water?

  2. In the beginning, the narrator says, "Man may have forgotten how to listen." What does this mean to you? How is it applicable to real life? In what ways could this statement be true?

  3. The myth speaks of a creature called the Tartuic, three beings with one name, which keeps order and justice. However, it keeps justice not with a fair hand but because it is so evil and fearsome. What is your impression of that? Do you think that symbolizes anything? If so, what? Do some people view God like that?

  4. Why is purpose important in life? How do people search for it? How do you see various Lady in the Water characters searching for meaning in their lives? What does the role of community and fellowship do for the residents in their search for meaning?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Lady in the Water is rated PG-13 for some frightening sequences. This is not a kids' movie. Children may be bored during much of the film and frightened by intense scenes with the wolf-like Scrunt creature and the monkey-like Tartuics, who dispense swift and brutal justice. There are several very tense sequences with the Scrunt preying on victims, chasing people or surprising bursting through doors. Story, the lady in the water, is never shown wearing more than a man's shirt (all that is visible is her legs) and is at times shown sitting in a shower without clothes on—but covered by her limbs or a towel.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 07/27/06

What makes a bedtime story a good bedtime story? Should it keep listeners awake with thrills and adventure? Or like a lullaby, is it something to lull us to sleep?

Judging from the tale of Lady in the Water, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan prefers bedtime stories about extraordinary creatures, scary monsters, troubled men who need redemption, and contrived plot twists.

And if Shyamalan's goal with this movie was to put viewers to sleep, well, he seems to be succeeding. Most critics—including those in the religious press—are disappointed in the film. Some think that Shyamalan has run out of the great ideas that made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs so compelling. Others continue to praise his direction, but wish he would find a better screenwriter.

Lady in the Water begins with the emergence of an otherworldly woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a peculiar kind of sea nymph called a "narf," who has come from her home in "the Blue World." She is found in a swimming pool at an apartment complex called The Cove, which is managed by a troubled, middle-aged widower named Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Dripping all over his couch, she announces that she has been sent to perform an important role in human history. But her quest is endangered by snarling wolf-monsters called "scrunts" that rise up from the grass to lurk around the property.

It quickly becomes evident that the real story here isn't about the sea nymph at all — it's about this stuttering handyman. Heep's a mess, a deeply wounded man, because, well, he's the central character in an M. Night Shyamalan film, which are always about wounded men who must be dragged kicking and screaming to confront their fears, overcome their deep hurts, and rise up to fulfill their destinies.

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But this time, the film gets too tangled up in its own fanciful ideas and loses track of its redemption story, badly fumbling the finale. Preoccupied with riddles, Shyamalan forgets all about storytelling. Just as Story herself spends most of the movie stuck in the apartment, so the film's narrative never gets into action. The truth is that nothing much happens in Lady in the Water. Most of the film consists of people explaining things to each other. Even as Shyamalan celebrates the power of myth, his own myth is so burdened with convoluted fill-in-the-blanks and multiple-choices that it feels more like a crossword than a mystery.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Giving the film a "D," Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is disgruntled by Shyamalan's work. "Lady in the Water wants you to believe that if I don't like this movie, it's because I'm not willing to accept it simply, like a child. That is obviously false. Give me Babe or Bambi, and I'm six years old again. I'm hardly too jaded to accept a nymph in a swimming pool—I think it's a fantastic idea. My problem is that Shyamalan has absolutely no idea what to do with her."

He adds, "Shyamalan is far from a hack; the evidence of his genuine talent is still evident in this, easily his most spectacularly misconceived film. What he is, I suspect, is creatively paralyzed, twisted in knots by his own legacy and the legendary status to which he aspires. With every film, the knots grow tighter, and he slips further and further into impotence and irrelevance."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) isn't impressed either. "[T]his aquatic E.T. retread fails to grip, despite skillful direction and solid performances. … [S]orry to say, the murky, if well-intentioned, Lady in the Water comes up mostly wet."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) enjoyed the film enough to give it a measured recommendation. "The film is often inspirational, contemplating the worth of humankind, showing how those who are emotionally deadened can be reawakened by a power beyond themselves, and demonstrating how the bonds of a loosely knit community can be strengthened in a common cause. … [T]here's wonder in this story, which appeals to our hopes and aspirations, rather than to our fears and cynicism. Although not quite on par with some of the director's earlier work, Lady has its rewards."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) turns in a positive review: "Lady in the Water is an entrancing story with great messages about living up to your potential and seeing the good in everyone while acknowledging that evil exists. In other words, it's not a falsely Pollyannaish view of the world, but neither is it cynical."

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He argues "As C. S. Lewis would say, it's part of a universal longing pointing toward the One True Myth. While there is magic and mystery here, there's nothing occult about it."

Many mainstream critics are more than merely disappointed. They think it's ridiculous.

from Film Forum, 07/27/06

Mickel K. Cardinell (Relevant) writes, "Lady in the Water is very much like a picture of the Christian Church. The plotline spends most of its energy finding the disciples who will usher in the kingdom. These disciples must all use the skills given to them by fate (or God?) to accomplish their purpose. If it were not for these disciples, the kingdom of peace could not take its place in the world. However, it is only as they come together as one body that they are able to fulfill this purpose."

from Film Forum, 08/17/06

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) writes, "The greatest indiscretion is Shyamalan's casting of himself as the writer, Vick. This bit of ego massaging hurts the movie because he places himself in the most sympathetic role." But he concludes that the film "does offer something important: faith in that which may sound too fantastic to believe."

Lady in the Water
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(3 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some frightening sequences)
Directed By
M. Night Shyamalan
Run Time
1 hour 50 minutes
Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright
Theatre Release
July 21, 2006 by Warner Bros.
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