What person would be so arrogant to assume he knew the intention of another human being and put this girl’s life in danger? —Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright)
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is sad. This makes him like other protagonists in M. Night Shyamalan movies, traumatized in ways they can’t articulate, struggling to make sense of random-seeming violence, seeking redemption even though they don’t know it. Like his predecessors, Heep is lonely, weary, focused on his day job.
In Lady in the Water, that job has everything to do with his coming salvation. He’s a Philadelphia apartment complex superintendent, looking after the day-to-day concerns of 50-something tenants. His awkwardness—he has a stutter and a shuffling gait—is not only a sign of his ordinariness, but also of his capacity for generosity and transcendence. He knows his tenants by name, timidly reminds them to follow the rules (no swimming in the pool after 7pm, no smoking in the units), and mostly keeps to himself. When someone starts making noises in the pool during the night, he feels he has to take a stand. But then he discovers the swimmer is not a tenant, but a pale girl named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Only she’s not a girl, she’s a “narf.” As Heep slowly discovers (and as you know already, owing to a lengthy explanatory narration at film’s start), Story comes from the water (she calls it “the blue world”), and has arrived among humans in order to deliver what she terms an “awakening” to a “chosen one.” He’s a writer, his name is Vick, and he happens to be played by Shyamalan, who happens to be a writer. Vick lives in the apartment complex with his big-hearted sister Anna (Sarita Choudhury), and has been suffering writer’s block for six months. As soon as he locks eyes with Story, he is able to finish his book, which he describes as his observations on the world’s many problems, leaders, and “stuff.” He calls it “The Cookbook.”
Arranging a meeting between Story and the “vessel,” it turns out, is only part of Heep’s self-appointed mission. He gleans this sense of mission by hearing a story about Story, a process that sounds convoluted but isn’t. For Story the narf is only an abstraction, a projection through which Heep will find himself. The story he hears coincides with the Story he sees because he needs this coincidence. This circularity coincides with the film’s circularity, as it both reveals and seems to confirm the filmmaker’s sense of his art in the world—that his stories aren’t appreciated, that critics don’t get him, that still, he’s right.
As Story is quite incapable of putting her own narrative pieces together, Heep does it for her, primarily drawing on information from his Korean tenants (the complex seems comprised of tenants cast according to a “one from every food group” sort of logic), university student Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung) and her mother (June Kyoko Lu). Mrs. Choi doesn’t speak English, and so Young-Soon provides translation for Heep, who endears himself to the mother by behaving like a child (drinking milk, curling up on the sofa, and waving his feet in excitement). This “tale from the East” fits Story’s situation exactly.
Among the many “bedtime story” elements are the scary monster and the detailed route by which they must be thwarted. The monster here is a dangerous doggish sort called a “scrunt” (actually, a CGIed creature who lurks in the lawn, covered with grass-for-fur, and leaps up to rip her flesh with its big teeth). To save Story, Heep must assemble his tenants as a cadre with this same shared goal. And they all go along with him—because this is his story.
Heep needs an “interpreter,” whom he presumes to be the single father Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright). He spends his days doing crossword puzzles while his son Joey (Noah Gray-Cabey) reads cereal boxes. Heep then looks to other tenants who have appeared briefly in the film’s early moments, including the “healer,” the animal-loving Mrs. Bell (Mary Beth Hurt); a kid who lifts weights (Freddy Rodriguez) to play “guardian”; and a group of philosophical chainsmokers (Jared Harris and a bunch of other scruffy guys), each with his or her own particular task in the saving of Story. The trouble is, they don’t know their parts, so Heep turns to a new tenant who’s supposed to know how stories work, a film critic named Farber (Bob Balaban). When this guy starts misreading the cues Heep tells him, the movie shifts from a strangely paced fairy tale to a kind of screed against bad readers, in particular, in Shyamalan’s universe, film critics.
The seeming insularity of this universe makes Lady in the Water claustrophobic and frustrating. While Heep is a familiar hero for Shyamalan and Farber embodies a preemptive strike against anticipated criticism of the film, the abstraction of Story is less cute and more symptomatic. A helpless girl in danger, she’s hardly novel. Story’s whiter-than-white skin, bloody cuts, color-shifting hair, and need to keep wet make her a bizarre amalgamation of fantasies, alternately “male” and “childish.” Though he imagines he serves her, she is in place to serve Heep, confirming his sense of himself and displaying for the rest of us that he’s right. .
Their relationship would seem to illustrate the conundrum of reading and writing. Where Farber is just a bad, cynical, unimaginative reader, Heep’s own reading improves throughout Lady in the Water. His earnest enthusiasm, sharp wit, and utter commitment to saving his new friend Story suggests that effective readers look beyond themselves. Writers might also take note.
Lady in the Water - Theatrical Trailer