In the same week that Kevin Smith came gunning for yours truly, it turns out M. Night Shyamalan has it in for movie critics everywhere. Late in his new film, Lady in the Water, a critic named Farber (played by actor Bob Balaban) is torn limb from limb by a demonic creature known as a scrunt, which looks like the love child of a porcupine and one of those hellborn canines from the Ghostbusters movies. In Shyamalan’s view, it’s a case of just desserts: For most of Lady in the Water’s running time, Farber, the latest tenant at a Pennsylvania apartment building called The Cove, is a stuck-up prude who makes dyspeptic pronouncements like, “There is no originality left in the world,” and generally seems to delight in raining on others’ parades. And when he finally does offer our hero — the stuttering building superintendent, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) — some help in decoding the movie’s central mystery, it turns out to be all wrong, leading another tenant to remark, “What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?”

Well, come this weekend, when Lady in the Water opens in cinemas nationwide, I suspect it’s the critics who’ll be doing the mauling; and if it’s “arrogance” that motivates them, it is certainly no match for Mr. Shyamalan’s own. Lady in the Water isn’t awful, mind you, but it is a failure, and one that carries itself with such chest-puffing pomposity that many will take pleasure in shooting it down for sport. Conceived as a movie about the power of storytelling, it is a far more revealing (if unintended) study in the power of ego — the work of a filmmaker who has become convinced that his every whim should be abided, and who believes sinister forces are conspiring against him. Little of this will surprise those who have followed the recent circling of media sharks around the Shyamalan-sanctioned tome The Man Who Heard Voices (about the director’s “struggle” to get his latest film made, after Disney studio executives dared to express reservations about the script), or who recall the equally sycophantic hoax “documentary,” The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, that aired on cable television back in 2004. But I speak as one who firmly believes that “Night” was a prodigiously talented filmmaker once, and that, with a healthy dose of humility, he may well be again.

Lady in the Water opens with a solemn narrator intoning a legend about a long-ago time when the world of men and “the blue world” — the world of water people — lived together in close harmony. And so things were, we’re told, until “man’s need to own everything” drove him inland, and a schism between the two worlds occurred. Times of great wars and suffering followed; but even now, every once in a while, the water people send their young on the perilous journey into our world, in the hope that a new alliance may be forged.

The rest of the film is devoted to just such an occasion, beginning with the appearance of an angelic “narf” (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the swimming pool of The Cove. Fished out by Cleveland, the narf (Shyamalanese for sea-nymph) doesn’t say much, except that her name is Story (subtle, no?) and she’s looking for (what else?) a writer. Fortunately, The Cove is positively swarming with them, including one played by Shyamalan himself, whose closely guarded manuscript is titled The Cookbook, though the cuisine under discussion is actually food for thought. It is, he tells Cleveland, a series of opinions about the culture, about “all the leaders and stuff,” and that “there’s a lot of things in the cookbook people won’t like to hear.” So much so, we learn via a bit of narf-facilitated future telling, that the writer will come to be silenced for his ideas, which will nevertheless live on to inspire and inform future generations. This is something fairly extraordinary: M. Night Shyamalan may be the first filmmaker to exalt himself to martyrdom within his own movie. Mel Gibson has nothing on him.

One of the more curious aspects of Lady in the Water is how readily Cleveland and the other Cove residents buy into Story’s story, and it’s clear that Shyamalan means for us to do the same. Not for a moment does anyone suggest that perhaps this pale-skinned lass isn’t really an otherworldly creature who lives in the pool, but just a confused teenage girl who bumped her head diving into it. Surely, only a fuddy-duddy cynic like Farber would entertain such a thought. To believe in Story, Shyamalan suggests, is to surrender to the pull of myths and the imagination. The only problem is that, while the most timeless and resonant myths are relatively simple tales designed to conceal complex meanings, the one at the center of Lady in the Water is so impenetrable you need a scorecard to keep track of the players and a glossary to parse the invented terminology.

Beyond the aforementioned narfs and scrunts, there are tree-dwelling simian creatures called tartutic and a giant bird, the Great Eatlon, which will supposedly come to whisk Story off into the heavens, whereupon she will set about making the world a better place for us all. There are also complex rules that must be followed, and rules dictating when and how those original rules can be broken — much of it explained to Cleveland (and us) by a Korean-American party girl (Cindy Cheung) with a magenta-colored cockatoo hairdo and nigh impenetrable accent who’s such a risible caricature you half expect her to blurt out, “Me so horny, Mr. Heep. Me love you long time.” And to think, I haven’t yet mentioned the apartment full of central-casting stoners who end up playing an important role in all of this, or the pint-sized Latino weightlifter (Freddy Rodriguez) who, for “scientific” reasons, elects to exercise only one half of his body.

What does it all add up to? Story is an innocent — okay, we get that — and there are references both subtle (TV and radio reports about the war in Iraq) and less so (Shyamalan’s character asking “Does man deserve to be saved?”) to the fact that we are living in troubled times. The motifs are certainly familiar: a sage child (The Sixth Sense), supernatural characters placed in a hypernatural setting (Unbreakable) and myriad crises of faith (Signs). But it’s ultimately tough to tell what Shyamalan is trying to say — beyond the obvious “Wouldn’t it be great if a sea-nymph with world-saving powers suddenly jumped out of your swimming pool?” — or why he’s chosen such a rambling, roundabout manner of saying it. In the press notes for the film, Shyamalan admits that Lady in the Water is based on a “bedtime story” he improvised for his two young daughters, and while I won’t question the sweet-dreams value of a story that involves wars and grisly beasties and deaths both actual and foretold, Shyamalan is right about one thing: Lady in the Water feels very much like something its author made up as he went along; and, if it weren’t so damn weird, it would most certainly put you right to sleep.

This is the fourth film Shyamalan has directed since The Sixth Sense (1999) earned its then-29-year-old maker two Oscar nominations and racked up nearly $700 million in worldwide box-office receipts, and it offers the most compelling evidence yet of just how much that early success may have been more of a curse than a blessing. Shyamalan can do whatever he wants, it is said, but what he chooses to do is doggedly try to recapture Sixth Sense lightning in a bottle — to dazzle us with one twist ending more elaborate than the last, to awe us with the dime-store Buddhism that imposes succinct order onto events that would be better off left random. (Remember Signs and “Swing away”?) It’s not surprising that Shyamalan is so driven — he comes from a family of doctors, and he has often cited Steven Spielberg as his moviemaking idol. But consider that, at this same point in his career, Spielberg had already made The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., and suddenly Shyamalan starts to more closely resemble George Lucas, serving out his 30-year sentence in Star Wars jail. There’s no question that Shyamalan can do remarkable things — his last (and, to my mind, best) film, The Village, turned on an ingenuous metaphor for isolationism and self-deception, before becoming undone by so much needless trickery. But consider the totality of his career and he does not seem to have advanced. And now Lady in the Water is unmistakably a setback, as well as a warning to potential detractors. You are, it seems, either with M. Night Shyamalan or against him, and this time I must take up residence in the latter camp, though I do so with a watchful eye cast over my shoulder. For I am deathly afraid of scrunts.

LADY IN THE WATER | Written and directed by M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN | Produced by SHYAMALAN and SAM MERCER | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

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