Lady in the Water (PG)

The vamp from the damp
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The Independent Culture

Cinema can make us believe just about anything: in recent memory, many of us have cheerfully accepted that a man in tights can fly, that wardrobes can contain snowy landscapes, that a top-hatted dandy with a workforce of cloned dwarves can run a profitable confectionery business. M Night Shyamalan made his reputation by persuading us that a man could be dead without realising it; his fabulist chutzpah even had me buying into the heritage-park-as-dissident-society premise of his last film The Village.

So why is it impossible to accept one iota of Lady in the Water? The film originated in an impromptu bedtime story that Shyamalan told his two daughters: no doubt they're young enough to be excused their credulity. To ask adults to swallow this bouillabaisse of fishy myth is pushing it. But then Shyamalan does expect a lot from his audience: he expects faith.

Previous Shyamalan films, notably the portentous sci-fi parable Signs, have made a big deal of faith: salvation awaits those who believe, doom attends the sceptics. Lady in the Water is similarly a film about - and demanding - unconditional faith. Its plot and contorted mythical underpinnings absolutely defy belief - but I suspect that is the very point. This is a movie that seeks to separate the soul-hardened from the pure at heart - from those ready to accept the Shyamalan narrative gospel, however threadbare. The writer-director parted company with his former backers Disney precisely because they questioned this film's viability: he seems to have considered their reaction nothing short of apostasy.

So, fathom this if you will. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the caretaker of an apartment block inhabited by sundry eccentrics and screeching racial stereotypes. One night, a young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) emerges from the swimming pool and introduces herself as Story, an emissary from "the Blue World". Heep discovers from a young Korean resident (Cindy Cheung) that his visitor is a "narf", a creature mentioned in "an Eastern bedtime story". He further learns that the grass-haired hyena things skulking around the pool are "scrunts", a narf's mortal enemies; that scrunts fear three ape-like beings called "tartutics"; and that a wounded narf can be healed by a magic mud called "kii". The narf, it turns out, is on a mission, and must be aided by a "Synthesist", a "Guild", a "Healer", a "Guardian". It's as if the whole plot were determined by the arcane rules of a Dungeons and Dragons game, devised arbitrarily and mistranslated from a Korean manual.

And yet, everyone in the film (all but one, that is) happily goes along with it all. Acting on the basis of fairy-tale hearsay, Heep - middle-aged and seemingly unfit - dives beneath the pool and spends several minutes in an underwater cavern, searching for magical mud.

Similarly, the appartments' denizens eagerly assume the mystical roles allotted them, and perform various inexplicable acts: gaze into mirrors to watch for scrunts, read portents from cereal packets, hold a party at which it's essential that a rock band be on hand to play "Maggie's Farm" at the appointed hour...

It's as if Shyamalan were putting us to the test, trying our faith not in the plausibility of a well-made yarn, but in his personal authority as a "master storyteller". And if you think he can't possibly be that arrogant, he casts himself as the budding author of a book "about cultural problems" - a tome on which, Story reveals, humanity's fate depends. I can't help feeling that this film is a cultural problem in itself: Lady in the Water envisions movie-going as a kind of fundamentalist worship in which the audience is required, like the film's characters, to bow down unquestioningly before a body of impenetrable esoterica. Such credence, as Shyamalan would have it, isn't sheep-like but child-like: truly to experience the wonder of cinema, he suggests, we must lose our jaded habits and become as infants. One gauche comic moment shows Heep literally trying to be like a child: guzzling milk and cookies as he pleads to be told more snarf-lore. However, there's something duplicitous about a film that demands we bring our faith to the table, yet finally needs to resort to elaborate CGI to make up the imaginative shortfall.

Wading gamely through the oppressive, khaki-toned visuals, Paul Giamatti emerges with honour, evincing sincerity as the gentle, woebegone hero. Stricken with waxy pallor, Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't do much but curl up demurely in the shower. I liked her unworldliness in Shyamalan's The Village, but here I couldn't help thinking of Esther Williams in reverse: dry she's a star, wet she ain't. The one sceptic in the story is a sourpuss film critic, played by Bob Balaban; he comes to a predictably sticky end after making some wiseacre objections about the film's own use of horror conventions (has Shyamalan actually seen the Scream series?). Of course, he's the one character I warmed to, because he resists the prevalent hysteria; that's a critic's job, isn't it?

Vamp From the Damp is an unqualified disaster, but let's have faith, eh? Who knows, perhaps it will teach Shyamalan some humility, and he'll realise that a film-maker has to earn an audience's respect and credence. He just needs to learn when a narf is a narf.