Even so, Shyamalan uses all of that and more in his constructions; it is, in fact, the stories that are the problem. And nothing will prepare you not his previous films, not any reviews you may read, not even a lifetime spent watching Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh cartoons for the rampant foolishness of Lady in the Water. His previous movie, The Village, a distended elegy for Rod Serling, is, well, Rod Serling by comparison. It's as if, on some semiconscious level, Shyamalan doubtless a serious and self-serious pop original is calling his own success into question and daring his audience to gulp down larger and spikier clusters of manure, just to see if they will. Or maybe he's lost his mind.
After cave-drawing animation fills in the background of the film's fairy tale, we are plopped down into an odd (meant to be quaint) apartment complex in the Philadelphia suburbs, occupied mostly by stereotyped eccentrics (meant to be cute, but instead creepy). There's a bodybuilder who has bulked up only one half of his body (Freddy Rodriguez), a glowering shut-in (Bill Irwin), grown brother-and-sister roommates (Shyamalan and Sarita Choudhury), a cabal of inveterate potheads (the dialogue for which suggests that Shyamalan has never, ever been stoned), etc. Our sensibly named hero, superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), is a lonesome, bighearted lug. We don't so much as see the parking lot, only the overgrown woods beyond the swimming pool. Soon, a waterlogged nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) saves Heep after he falls in the pool. Awakening in his flat, he's told by this ethereal gamine (Howard can act, but here she just stares) that she's a "narf," which is a brand-new fairy moniker that Shyamalan, hilariously, attributes to ancient Korean folklore.
A narf, you see, has to be seen by a chosen human every now and then in order for that human to be inspired to greatness before the "scrunts" large, grass-backed hyenas kill her. But they can be held off by whoever's designated, somehow, as "the Guardian," with whose help (and that of a "Symbolist," a "Guild" and a "Healer") she can be hauled away by the "Great Eatlon" (a giant eagle). Unless, of course, the "Tartutic" intervenes.
You'd think that Shyamalan made this malarkey up in the editing room, but it has also manifested as a children's book (just published by Little, Brown), and its aboriginal, 150-word form makes just as little sense. What makes Lady in the Water a uniquely stultifying experience is how this bizarre concoction is explicated. Giamatti's schmo spends the bulk of the film piecing it together from hearsay, whim and the dribs of bedtime memory provided by a recalcitrant Korean mom. Every fresh detail, rule or exception is cause for exasperation, and the willful ignorance of real mythology, outpacing that of most high schoolers, is significant.
Like all of his movies from The Sixth Sense on, Lady pivots on the dawning awareness of a vast cosmic plan foisted on grieving parents and spouses as a holy scab for their wounds. It's beginning to chafe as a formula; Shyamalan's stock is probably worthless among viewers who know about loss for real. Authorial vision is a nonissue in the face of so much repetitive, rootless mumbo-jumbo.