Lady in the Water (2006)

Lady in the Water Title

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Written by M. Night Shyamalan

Co-Starring M. Night Shyamalan

Produced by M. Night Shyamalan

Run Time: 109 Minutes

Tagline: Time is running out for a happy ending.

Like most people on the planet, I was terrifically impressed by M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 debut The Sixth Sense. I was wrapped up in the story from the beginning, and I freely admit to being bowled over by the surprise at the end. All in all a treat of a cinematic experience. But his follow-ups grew increasingly dominated by a preachy kind of sentimentality, and I parted ways with him. Then Lady in the Water came out in 2006, and it was so thoroughly trashed that it seemed to be his Waterloo, or his Heaven’s Gate. Can it really be that bad? The Monster Shack provides the perfect venue for an investigation and (Spoiler Alert!) the answer is yes.

A Complicated, Yet Still Incomplete, Summary Of The Torturous Plot:

Black & white animated stick figures that look vaguely prehistoric open the movie and fill us in on the backstory. Here we learn that the seemingly all female “ones in the water” used to impart wisdom to Man. Only Man doesn’t listen very well, true enough, so the guys, and they all appear to be guys, go inland, acquire property, and start a bunch of wars. But now the ones in the water are trying again, so they send their “precious young ones” into the human world to try to restore some sanity. Only it’s dangerous, because in addition to dealing with a bunch of greedy, stubborn, warlike men, they also have to contend with some sort of wolf-like creatures. – What the heck do wolf-like creatures have to do with mankind’s greedy and violent nature, by the way?

Then we meet nice, ordinary looking, stutter prone maintenance guy Cleveland Heep. Yes, Cleveland Heep. (Rhymes with jeep. And if that’s not a name meant to invoke despair I’ll eat my hat!) He’s earnestly played by one of my favs, Paul Giamatti, and I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that he’s soulful and lonely. To make matters worse, his job is nothing but a collection of warmly hit-or-miss comic vignettes amongst the vivaciously multi-cultural and charmingly eccentric residents of an apartment complex called The Cove – as in Safe Harbor, FYI. It’s sort of like Greenwich Village, by way of an old MGM musical – only without the music.

But while depressed, Cleveland manages to avoid bitterness. Unlike the pinch-mouthed book and movie critic (Bob Balaban) who has just moved in. (Aren’t cultured, college-educated white people the worst?) This is an achievement because some unknown person seems to be swimming in the pool at night and making the water oily, which is hell on the filtration system. Our story begins in earnest one night when Cleveland attempts to solve the mystery of the unknown swimmer only to slip, bump his head, and fall into the pool. Waking up in his own apartment he finds that he is alive, and that a young, half-naked woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) with intense eyes is staring at him from across the room.

Almost the first words out of the young woman’s mouth are, “Do you feel an awakening?…Do you feel like pins and needles inside?” ( Groan. ) So much for subtlety. And her name is Story. ( Dear Lord! ) Beyond that she doesn’t say much, because it’s too early in the movie to dispel the “mystery.” The mystery that was completely explained to us in the pre-title animation. The same mystery that we will have explained to us again and again in ever greater detail for the next hour and a half. Nor do we get any comedy or energy as a flustered maintenance man grills his mystery swimmer. What we get is lots of pregnant silences as a woebegone Cleveland promises not to get her in trouble, and she asks to stay with him because she’s scared. Again, with no explanation. (Wasn’t she sent to the world of Man to communicate with us?) And as the plangent string section begins to play the…..scene….just….dies.

Heep and Story

Heep & Story hear a scrunt. (Metaphysical fable, or Dr. Suess parody? You be the judge.)

Later that night Cleveland wakes up on the couch with Story innocently cuddling against him. Tormented by his loneliness and desire, he takes her out to the pool deck only to be chased back inside by one of those wolf-like things. (Which we’ll learn later is called a ‘scrunt’.) The next day he’s giving a report to a city official about the incident, so we know that Story is still being mysterious and uncommunicative. As if to compensate, the music starts telling us too much and angelic choral voices manifest themselves on the soundtrack. (Oh goodie!) All the while a frightened and defenseless Story wonders about Cleveland’s ground floor apartment. Its windows look out over the tall, un-mowed grass. Guess what’s hiding in the grass?


The scrunt

Continuing to leave Story unattended, Cleveland then asks a young bikini clad Chinese co-ed what a “narf” is. Why not? Amazingly, she knows, because her grandmother used to tell stories that had narfs in them. Is this co-incidence, or (bum-bum-bummmm) fate? Anyways, the co-ed, along with her comically cantankerous mother, explains that a narf is a sea-nymph. What’s more:

“In the bed-time story, she must be seen by the one human chosen for her. This person is called the vessel. Seeing the narf will awaken something in this chosen one. If she is successful in this, she will return with the great eagle, a giant eagle. And become free.”

OK… At least now I don’t have to feel guilty about putting the movie’s ending in this review.

Back at Cleveland’s apartment Story (God I hate that name) innocently walks around in the nude. Because, sigh , she’s innocent. And being a narf, she must awaken something inside the chosen one. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. (I’m going to pull a Dennis and give a “Note from the future.” The sexual innuendo abruptly disappears after this scene – thank goodness. But why was it in there in the first place if it serves no dramatic function in the story?)

But wait, maybe Cleveland isn’t the chosen one. Story finally loosens up a bit and says she’s searching for a writer, a writer who is working on something important.

So Cleveland obligingly does some detective work around the complex. More warm comic vignettes amongst the vivaciously multi-cultural and charmingly eccentric tenants. More visits with the hot co-ed and her comically cantankerous mother for more details on the narf’s story. Why? Because Story isn’t allowed to explain herself to humans. Why? That’s never explained. (But of course we all know that this is the conceit that allows the movie to run to one hour and 49 minutes. After said hour and 49 minutes a giant eagle will swoop down and carry me away, so that I can be free. I hope.)

Cleveland is successful and he finds The Writer, a young Indian man with lovely brown eyes who is played by none other than writer, producer, director M. Night Shyamalan! Though currently suffering from writer’s block, our young man is working on something called ‘The Cookbook’. “It’s actually just my thoughts on all the cultural problems, and thoughts on leaders and stuff,” he explains. (Wow! I’m working on a book about all the cultural problems too! I’m also writing about leaders and stuff!!! I’m up to page 934, and the next chapter will be called “Integrity and America’s Future: The Threat from Within.”) He then adds modestly, “I don’t know who’s going to want to publish the thing.” (Tell me about it.)

Rushing back to his own apartment, Cleveland finds Story curled up on a chair holding his own secret, private diary. In a tiny, hard to hear little-girl’s voice that gets more and more annoying as the movie goes on, she explains his tragic past. Seems he was a doctor until an intruder murdered his family when he was away from home. (Unanswered question: did he stutter when he was a doctor?) We are spared a flashback to this horrible crime, but the whole thing seems needlessly over the top, and just plain off. Cleveland suffers, we are told by Story, because he feels he has no purpose. Given the nature of his tragedy I would think he’d suffer from a hatred of the human race. Anyways, Story continues and, standing in for God, helpfully tells Cleveland that “all beings have a purpose.” (What’s that?)

Brushing aside this dime-store philosophy comfort, Cleveland brings in The Writer who is “awakened” just by looking at Story. This scene is shot very oddly because The Writer is out of focus, while Cleveland, who is fussing around in the background, is in focus. Weird. But at least Story’s mission to the world of Man has been accomplished and now she can go home and “be free!” Uh oh. There’s still an hour of run time left. Sure enough, something goes wrong and Story is nearly killed by the scrunt. What went wrong?

Writer and Heep

The Writer (the blurry fellow on the left) receives the “Awakening” he needs to redeem the world, while Heep fishes for some apartment maintenance paperwork in the background.

So it’s back to the hot co-ed and her comically cantankerous mother for yet more briefing on narfs, scrunts, and something else called a tartutic, in addition to the giant eagle. Oh and guess what. Our narf isn’t just a garden variety narf, she’s a“Madam Narf!” This is a very rare Queen narf who only comes once in a thousand generations. It’s because she is so important that the scrunt is willing to break “the rules.” Oh, and there’s more! In addition to narfs, Madam Narfs, scrunts, tartutics, and giant eagles, we have a number of humans who play an important role in protecting the Madam Narf. (Remember, she’s the rare Queen narf who only comes once in a thousand generations!) These humans come in a dazzling array of types, including The Guardian, The Healer, The Symbolist, and a whole group called The Guild. Remember Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes A Village to Raise a Child? Well, evidently it takes an apartment complex to save a narf. And I mean the WHOLE complex. The whole quirky, vivacious, multi-cultural, yet lost and yearning for purpose complex. (Did I mention that the Tartutics live in trees? I didn’t? Well, they do. FYI.)

But there’s a problem. No one knows who these people are. So Cleveland will have to play house detective again.

Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself, because I didn’t give you Story’s prediction for The Writer’s future. (FYI – narfs can predict the future.) Seems that a little boy who will grow up in the mid-west will one day read The Writer’s book, and “will grow into a great orator. (Here the music swells into a gentle wave of uplifting soulfulness.) He will speak and his words will be heard throughout this land and throughout the world. This boy will become leader of this country and begin a movement of great change. He will speak of you and your words. Your book will be the seed of many of his great thoughts. It will be the seed of change.”

During this great prophecy, The Writer, played by writer, producer, director M. Night Shyamalan looks on with wonder and humility – and my mouth hangs open in amazement. What a fantastic guy! And he’s modest too, for later he tells Story “I’m nobody special.” Oh pshaw Mister, pshaw!

Back to the search for The Guardian, The Healer, The Symbolist, and The Guild. Well, Madam narf herself thinks that Cleveland is the Guardian, so that’s one down. Phew! As for the rest, Cleveland turns to the sour, pinch-mouthed critic for help. Here Shamyalan plays with fire, daring the viewer to apply The Critic’s words to Lady in the Water itself, “There is no originality left in the world, Mr. Heep.” (But you’re wrong Mr. Critic – have you ever heard of a tartutic?) And in looking for The Guild, Cleveland should find a group of people who are always together and have “seemingly irrelevant and tedious dialogue that seems to regurgitate forever.” Ummm, I’m going to walk away from this one.

And I won’t go into all of the convolutions as the plot does loop de loops around itself. Suffice it to say that Mr. Smarty Pants Critic is wrong about who is who, and so Madam Narf is almost killed, again, by the rogue scrunt. If this makes you as angry as it apparently makes writer, producer, director M. Night Shyamalan, who plays The Writer, you will be happy to learn that The Critic is the only one in the movie that the scrunt manages to kill. (Of course, Story also got it wrong when she pegged Cleveland for The Guardian. Turns out he’s really The Healer, because he used to be a doctor, etc. But well, that’s different.)

Anyways, our very large group of charmingly eccentric, and surprisingly pliable heroes finally starts to figure out who is who. And guess what, the Symbolist, the one who can read signs and see the truth, is a kid! A kid with the mystical ability to prophecy from cereal boxes. (!?!) I came close to heaving at this point, for the wise innocent is such a hoary old cliché of American cinema I just can’t take it any more. What was it that The Critic said about originality? And maybe this is the time to reveal another one of Story’s predictions – that The Writer will be assassinated because of his book… Jesus F**king Christ, he’s ANOTHER Christ figure!

All of this leads up to a “climatic”, if shambling, party thrown around the pool on the last night that Story can return to narf world. (I’d like to take a moment here to give some sympathy to all of the fine actors lost at sea in this movie. In addition to Paul Giamatti and Bob Balaban, we have Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, and Tovah Feldshuh. We also have newcomer Cindy Cheung as the Chinese babe. She starts out kind of annoying, but ends up beating the odds and gives a winning performance.)

Pool party

The pool party. Note how the pool likes like a giant eye. Note too how this adds nothing to the story.

The party is meant to confuse the scrunt, but, surprise, our large group of charmingly eccentric heroes still haven’t gotten it right, and Story is again nearly killed by the scrunt. This is the point in the movie where we learn that Cleveland is The Healer, and we have to suffer through the morbid sentimentality of a tear-stained apology to his dead family as he tries to heal Story. (!?!) Ye Gods, it’s just like daytime television. But at least he magically heals Story’s wounds. This is great news because the return of the Madam Narf to the narf world will be taken as a particularly important inspiration for her people. Why? I have no idea. Story has the narf gift for predicting the future, but has otherwise exhibited no outstanding qualities whatsoever. When she isn’t fumbling about mistaking people for what they are not, she is a passive damsel in distress.

Oh well, let’s just cut to the chase where the eagle flies down and carries her away to narf world. The scrunt, meanwhile, is dragged off into the trees by the 3 tartutics. For the tartutics are evil and vicious, but uphold justice (?!?) They are also woefully behind the curve, for they only show up after our motley band of heroes learn to effectively guard Madam Narf….. are they a stand-in for the CIA? Oh, never mind.

Sean Ledden (Dec 2009)


How many tartutics does it take to lick a scrunt? (Answer: Don’t be disgusting!)

That’s the story at the heart of Lady in the Water, and writer, producer, director M. Night Shyamalan audaciously casts himself as the sage. Wow, what an ego! But then he gets cagey and turns the lead over to the sad-sack janitor, after dumping a stutter and a pointlessly tragic backstory on him. Further cover is provided by a huge cast of colorful characters and tons of meaningless and fanciful foo-foo. The result of all this misdirection is a dull, meandering movie and a shocking lack of tension in The Writer’s story. A couple of minutes after we meet him he successfully gets \”awakened,\” and even after he learns that he’ll get killed there’s never any doubt he’ll write the book. For to dramatize that struggle would require Shyamalan to illuminate The Writer’s burning ambition and faith in his own righteousness. It would also pressure Shyamalan to prove that The Writer is actually worth something. As it is we are merely told that he is incredibly wise.
\”Nothing is as it seems\” is a classic Shyamalan theme, just look at ‘The Sixth Sense’, and it applies to ‘Lady in the Water’ more than he’d admit.

Final Note
According to the Internet, Lady in the Water cost a staggering $75 million! It’s one of those movies that make you wonder where the money went.”);


8 comments to Lady in the Water (2006)

  • guts3d

    75 mil!!!??? I gotta get a different job…. Nice review, Sean!

  • Sean

    You and me both! Thinking about “Lady”s price tag, it would be fascinating to see a record of how it was all spent.

  • Fair and accurate review. I loved SIGNS, I really did. Liked SIXTH SENSE. But haven’t seen M. Night do anything close to that level of work since. THE VILLAGE was as predictable as you can get. LADY IN THE WATER caught my curiosity but when all the characters were suddenly revealed as not being whom they were thought to be, I just started laughing. Out loud. Well, DUH…or in this case, DUD. Throw in THE HAPPENING, and well…

    I see dead careers all around me…

  • $75 MILLION??? They must’ve bought that building with the swimming pool. Hell, they could’ve given me $50, and I would’ve read the script and rejected it for the studio.

  • Sean

    I would have rejected the script for $49 million! – And thinking about all that wasted money, I’m guessing that they built the entire set for the movie, and that Shyamalan spent months shooting miles and miles of footage. Then more time was spent putting together a “first draft” cut that was probably 8 hours long. THEN more time was spent editing the movie down to a commercial run-time. All thru this process truck loads of money were being driven to the public dump.

    Thanks for the comments!

  • Ryan

    This movie did have problems. For example, why do we need to be talked down to from the start, saying that we’re all a bunch of greedy child-like humans who can’t listen to the enlightened water people? And, I mean, its not like a war was never fought on or near the ocean. Where were the water people then? All of it reminds me of the South Park global warming episode, “we should have listened!!!!” It could have been a better movie if some of the premise was changed. What I do like is the creature design, the score is fanatastic. The music playing during the final scene is so epic, it’s worthy of a Batman film. And really the entire idea of a fantasy/mystical event taking place in ordinary modern society is an idea I like. It just should have been done a little differently.

  • Sean Ledden

    I agree with you on the neat creature designs. And overall the production quality is quite high. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the script is so awful. One reason I hate movies like this, is that I too love the idea of a mystical fantasy that takes place in our ordinary world. Given the resources and talent this movie had at it’s disposal, it could have been great.

  • Night-Gaunt

    Never saw it, one day I will and want to give it to a competent editor to totally re-cut the picture. Including discarded scenes filmed. You would be amazed what a good editor can do to save a picture.

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