Lady in the Water is even more ridiculous when you consider how easily its characters go along with the story. A woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) appears in a pool of water near the beginning of the film. The handyman of an apartment complex finds her, and immediately believes that she is some sort of magical being that comes right out of a fairy tale — a fairy tale that is told to him over the course of the film, whenever he’s unsure of what to do.
He’s not the only one either. All of the other members of this appointment complex believe that she is special. There is not one hint of skepticism to be found here, as all of the secondary characters play along whenever they are called upon. There’s one moment in the film where a large group of characters, are told that they need to be involved in some sort of ceremony. None of them say anything about how preposterous this ceremony is, but instead just relish all of their roles and perform their tasks just like they’re told. I know that a suspension of disbelief is required in fantasy films like this, but this is just a little too ridiculous for me to accept.
This is how the plot of Lady in the Water sets up. The handyman is named Cleveland, and is played by Paul Giamatti. He finds this woman, named Story, and immediately accepts that she requires his assistance in getting home. Why does she need to get home in the first place? What would happen if she fails? It’s never explained, or if it is, I didn’t care. It seemed like the better option would be to ignore her and kick her out of the complex. But I guess that wouldn’t result in a good movie now, would it?
Which isn’t to say that it resulted in a good movie anyway, and by the end, I hoped that Gimatti’s character would have just forgotten about the lady, and then I wouldn’t have been put through what felt like 2 hours of torture. Or maybe the creature that inexplicably lurks in the tall grass would finish them off. It comes close a couple of times, but the worst it does is give some scratches to the legs of Story. It looks like a green wolf, or at least, would if the CGI wasn’t terrible.
Given the budget of this film, the CGI should actually look perfect. $75 million was the final budget for a film like this, and since there’s no way that the actors involved demanded an exorbitant salary, and apart from a couple of CGI creatures, there are no special effects, $75 million seems excessive. The money went into actually building an entire apartment complex, because director M. Night Shyamalan wanted to. And since this movie came out when Shyamalan could do almost whatever he wanted with his films, he was allowed to do this.
Also at this point in Shyamalan’s career was the belief that he would finish his films with a twist ending. So yeah, that happens. But twist endings fail to hold any importance when they happen just for the sake of happening. The multiple twists that occur in this film involve characters that we’ve only interacted with once or twice, and are only surprising because we’ve forgotten about them. And the twist only actually comes to fruition because of a mistake made by one of the characters to begin with. It’s contrived and made me disappointed that we had to be tricked in order to be surprised.
Apart from Cleveland, the handyman, none of the characters get sufficient time to develop or becoming fully fleshed out characters. Here’s something else that’s odd: Story, the character in the title of the film, gets less time on-screen that the one that Shyamalan himself plays. I get that she needs to be somewhat of a mystery, and since she may or may not actually be human, she might not actually have much of a personality, but she needed to be present far more often that she was. She mostly just lies around on a couch or bed for most of the film.
And then there are some characters that appear for a specific purpose, but are used for nothing other than that. An elderly woman named Mrs. Choi (June Kyoto Lu) is who ends up reciting most of the fairy tale to Cleveland. But since she doesn’t speak English, she was given a daughter who can. These two characters serve that one purpose, and nothing else. This is true of other characters too, like a film critic (Bob Balabam) who talks down to everyone, supposedly symbolizing what Shyamalan thinks of film critics. (At least, if everything in this film is supposed to be symbolic, that’s my guess.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the parts I liked about the film, so let’s do that. One of the scenes involving the film critic was funny. One of the scenes near the beginning when Cleveland finds Story also made me laugh. The first scene was actually intended to be humorous, while the latter was unintentionally hilarious. Quite a lot of the film is unintentionally funny, either because it’s just terrible or because the situations are so preposterous. But you’ll probably laugh a fair bit at the film’s expense.
But that’s all I liked. Most of the film is mundane and an unenjoyable experience. The actors are poor, the plot is ridiculous and felt contrived, and the twists near the end are only twists because the film cheats. Lady in the Water may be trying to represent a children’s fairy tale, but instead of watching it, you’d have more fun reading a real fairy tale. Although if you need something to put you to bed, this might be for you.