DVD Release Date:  December 19, 2006 
Theatrical Release Date:  July 21, 2006
Rating:  PG-13 (for some frightening sequences)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  110 min.
Director:  M. Night Shyamalan
Actors:  Paul Giammati, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Sarita Choudhury, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, Jared Harris

A few years ago, Newsweek declared director M. Night Shyamalan, "the next Spielberg." Three of Shyamalan's first four feature films - The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable - established his reputation as the new king of suspense, an heir to the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock and a crowd-pleaser of Spielberg's caliber.

Then came The Village, Shyamalan's tale of isolation, loss and alienation. Intense interest in Shyamalan's work turned the film into a hit, but opening-weekend attendance quickly eroded as word of mouth spread. The man who built his reputation on endings that pull the rug out from under viewers had failed them with an ending that, on the surface, seemed like nothing more than a gimmick. (The film's not so subtle post-9/11 politics played well internationally, but barely registered in the United States.)

Now comes Lady in the Water, a gentle fairy tale starring Paul Giammati as Cleveland Heep, yet another Shyamalan protagonist who has closed himself off from the broader world in response to a devastating personal loss. As supervisor of the Cove apartments, Heep limits his human interaction mostly to a group of odd tenants, including a bodybuilder (Freddy Rodriguez), a crossword-puzzle aficionado (Jeffrey Wright), a film critic (Bob Balaban), an aspiring writer (M. Night Shyamalan) and his sister (Sarita Choudhury).

Heep's life is changed after he is visited by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a "narf," or sea nymph, who dwells in the passageways beneath the apartment's swimming pool. She enlists the help of Heep and his tenants in her efforts to return to her home, the Blue World. But first she must identify the "chosen one," and do so while fending off "scrunts" - vicious creatures that seek to destroy her.

Heep derives the details of Story's situation not only from Story, but from an Asian woman who lives in the Cove and knows the mythology - taught to her as a bedtime story - behind the narfs.

With the window of opportunity for Story's return rapidly closing, the apartment dwellers unite in the belief that they each have a crucial role to play in helping Story fulfill her destiny. In so doing, they discover their own life purposes.

Giammati is grand once again in his first leading role in a major studio project, while Howard brings an appropriate ethereal quality to Story. The supporting cast is top-notch, with enough amusing character quirks to carry us through when the script bogs down. Less effective is a climactic sequence that fails to glue us to our seats the way Signs did, or offer any great surprise.

Nevertheless, 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.

As with the director's other films, Lady in the Water includes certain principles, such of the interconnectedness of all things, more commonly associated with Eastern philosophies, but Lady also echoes biblical characters and ideas:  a reluctant leader is pressed into service for a greater cause, and each person discovers that they have a special purpose.

Has Shyamalan lost a step? Maybe, but there'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. It's also the only one of Shyamalan's films that might be appropriate for older children - at times frightening, but never approaching the dread and intensity of the director's other work. Lady in the Water isn't a rigorous workout, but a nice dip during the arid summer moviegoing season.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; "a--"; "sucked."
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Some smoking (including marijuana); drinking at a poolside party.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None shown, but Story stands nude before Cleveland, who worries about her presence in his apartment; a woman in a skimpy bikini.
  • Violence:  A menacing beast snarls, growls, and attacks a man; images of war on a TV screen.
  • Religion:  Redemptive elements, but the themes are not exclusively Christian.