Lady in the Water’s premise, that the root of human sin is due to a break with the wise inhabitants of the Blue World of water, is rather silly and made sillier by a sententious voice-over that explains it, but its story is simple enough. A water nymph named, er, Story (played by the ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard), has been sent to find the writer she’s destined to inspire, so that he can finish the book that will, eventually, save the world (I’m not giving anything away by noting that the world-saving writer is played by none other than the film’s director). She’s helped by Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), who finds her in the swimming pool of the apartment building where he works as superintendent. With the help of Korean student Young-Soon Choi and her mother, Heap must unriddle the bedtime story into which he’s been plunged, and locate the writer and the other people needed to help Story complete her quest and protect her from her enemy, the hyena-like Scrunt that haunts the apartment building’s grounds.
Most of the plot twists are derived either from the deus ex machina rules of Story’s quest, or from cases of mistaken identity as Heap tries to find amongst the apartment building’s tenants those predestined to help Story. And there’s the rub. M. Night Shyamalan’s best films are driven by conflict between vividly-drawn counterpart characters - ghost and ghost-whisperer in The Sixth Sense; hero and villain in Unbreakable. But since a football team of people are needed to protect and help Story, and there are at least two candidates for every place on the team, there are so many named characters packed into the movie’s 90-odd minutes that there’s little space to develop most of them beyond stock types.
The central characters fare little better. After a strong introduction, Story does little but huddle in the shower and refuse to divulge vital information, and even Cleveland Heap fails to stir the audience’s empathy when he finally realises his true nature and comes to terms with the Hero’s Wound that drove him to hide away from the world in a modest job in a modest apartment building. The Scrunt provides several good shock moments, there’s plenty of typically crisp dialogue and clever ideas, and there’s fine comedy relief from Young-Soon’s obtuse mother and an acidulous film critic (a nice cameo by Bob Balaban). But Shyamalan’s failure to develop strong central characters leaves the mechanics of his plot and the paint-by-numbers symbolism of his story overly exposed. For a movie that promises world-changing events, Lady in the Water ultimately feels as hermetic as the bubble of water in a snow-globe.