A Purpose-Driven Fairy Tale

Posted: Jul 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Watching M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, Lady in the Water, one gets the distinct impression the writer/director must have just finished reading Rick Warren’s best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” so intent is he on imbuing his bedtime story with the message that everyone matters. You may be a social outcast, a lonely caretaker, or a chlorinated sea nymph, but the universe still has a plan for you.

A good moral to be sure, but it’s not likely Shymalan is going to have as much success getting the word out as Warren has. To do that, he would have had to wrap it in a narrative that makes some semblance of sense. Instead the tale of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a shlumpy, stuttering apartment manager who discovers a water sprite living in his pool, is more convoluted than the tax code.

Within seconds of discovering a lovely, young skinny-dipper splashing about at midnight, Cleveland has to rescue her from a fiend that looks like a warthog crossed with a wolf. Later, after he safely deposits her on his couch, she informs him through a sleep-hazed voice that and she is a “narf” from the blue world named Story (get it?) and that the thing that tried to attack them is called a “scrunt”.

Understandably flummoxed, Cleveland inquires of his Korean neighbors whether they know anything about narfs and scrunts. They do, and proceed to tell him of a legend about water spirits who travel to earth to inspire a “vessel” (in this case a writer, played by Shyamalan himself) who will change the fate of mankind and a collection of humans who must then fulfill their destinies to help the narf avoid the scrunt and find her way back to the “Blue World.”

With nary a reservation, Cleveland accepts the folk tale as gospel truth and begins to round up tenants who could fit the bill as “The Guild,” “The Symbolist,” and “The Guardian” necessary to get Story back to the pool. If all goes as predicted, an eagle will descend to carry her to her world and three celestial evil monkeys will drop from the trees to drag the scrunt back from whence he came. At one point Story pleads with Cleveland, “You have to believe this is all going to make sense.” Shyamalan might as well be begging his audience to do the same.

The problem is he wants both a quaint fairy tale and an overarching Homeric myth. Fairy tales are simple, usually involving a prince, an evil stepmother, something menacing with big teeth, and perhaps one magical item. Myths are far more densely populated, with divinities directing man’s fate, fantastical creatures whose aims are difficult to discern, and choruses warning of doom in the background. Shyamalan tries to incorporate the simplicity of one with the richness of the other, without capturing the appeal of either.

Perhaps if he had given his fantasy world more legs—like a flashback to humanity’s interaction with narfs that isn’t drawn in stick figures—we could develop an attachment to their world and, thus, their emissary. But he provides only the barest outline of Story’s background, so the crusade to get her back to her realm seems less like the fate of the world depends on it and more like a way to waste a few hours while living in a boring apartment building. A certain kind of viewer might find this brand of patched-together magical realism charming, but most are likely to experience it as a slightly scarier, elevated version of Fraggle Rock.

However, if the natives of the blue world come off a bit uninspired, Shyamalan’s earthly realm is populated with exactly the kind of imaginative, surprising creations Story and the scrunt should have been. One tenant works out only the right side of his body as a kind of science experiment. Another has a son who sees mystical messages on the backs of cereal boxes. And yet another is a film critic (Bob Balaban) who narrates his interactions with other tenants as though all of life were simply one long, bad movie review (whatever other failings the movie has, this particular character is a stroke of snarky genius). Unfortunately, we don’t get enough of their idiosyncrasies as the inhabitants of the real world are immediately put to work in service to the fantasy girl.

But the film is right about one thing—we all do have a purpose. And right now, mine is to remind you that you don’t need to waste eight bucks on a bad movie to find that out.