Heartfelt but half-baked, Lady in the Water proves it takes more than good intentions to make a great movie.
M. Night Shyamalan's latest foray into genre invention finds him taking on fairy tale convention with a fantasy filled with odd creatures, mysterious ritual and the rigors of apartment living.
Although the conceit is admirable, the execution falters. Cinema depends on an audience taking a logical leap of faith, but too often Lady makes demands that are difficult to honor.
Characters are asked to believe the unlikely without hesitation. When confronted with the idea of a water nymph hollowing out a hidey hole beneath an apartment building swimming pool or the necessity of secret ceremonies, nobody even offers an arched brow. People just roll with it.
That does keep the narrative moving at a crisp clip, but it also asks the audience to believe that the entire population of a good-size apartment building is either terminally gullible or certifiably insane.
Much of the charm of Mr. Shyamalan's earlier work has stemmed from his ability to tell amazing tales without becoming a slave to special effects. Yes, a few aliens cropped up in Signs, but beyond that he resisted the temptation to make his movies full-on creature features, evidently with good reason.
The monsters that prowl Lady seem half-cooked copies of movie monsters seen before and are poorly executed. A giant eagle sweeps through suburban Philadelphia airspace unnoticed, and does so looking every bit (and byte) like a castoff from a decade-old video game.
Despite glaring inconsistencies and improbabilities, Lady in the Water remains as endearing as it is infuriating. Credit the superior cast, which includes Paul Giamatti as an unlikely hero, the always interesting Jeffrey Wright as a crossword-obsessed father, and relative newcomer Cindy Cheung as a young woman straddling old and new traditions.
Still, the cast is never quite enough to save Lady, a film with its heart in the right place but its head in the clouds.
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THE DVD: Lady in the Water (Warner Home Video; $28.98)
THE VERDICT: ** out of *****
DVD EXTRAS: The film features an excellent making-of documentary that explains creative decision making better than most.