“Lady in the Water,” now in theaters, swings for the fences as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan stuffs his movie with a study of the creative process and a primer on purpose. Paul Giamatti plays maintenance man Cleveland Heep, a sad gentleman who stammers when he talks, but who also spends his life caring for the people of The Cove apartment complex.

Paul Giamatti plays maintenance man Cleveland Heep, a sad gentleman who stammers when he talks, but who also spends his life caring for the people of The Cove apartment complex. 


And Cleveland has a problem: Someone is swimming in the pool after hours. That someone is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is, it seems, a character from a fairy tale. Story is a muse who has come to this world to inspire a writer and help people realize the greatness hidden within.


Story is a Narf, a race of people who inhabit a bedtime story told in the Far East. She is pursued by a wolf-like creature called a scrunt, which tries to keep Story from going home. Cleveland believes Story and wants to help her home, but Story can’t tell him how to help.


Cleveland must learn the story of Story.  


He gets help from a Korean woman, who heard the story in her childhood. To get Story home, Cleveland will need to assemble “the interpreter,” “the healer” and “the guild,” all of whom can be found among The Cove’s residents. 


Shyamalan adds one important character to the story: Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban). Farber is a movie/book critic who tries to tell Cleveland which residents fit which roles. Farber thinks he knows a person’s purpose based on his own understanding of narrative—but another character says it’s hypocritical to think one can tell another his or her purpose.   


And here’s the movie’s larger theme: purpose, or the role people play in the drama of life. Shyamalan wants to show how everyday people can and do have great purpose in our world—and how the unlikeliest of all may provide the greatest addition to the story. 


Shyamalan goes for gold with “Lady in the Water,” and he does so with a chip on his shoulder. His last movies, “The Village” and “Signs,” did not pack the wallop of his most famous movie, “The Sixth Sense.” This chip and his hard attempt to do well mar the movie.


As a result, “Lady in the Water” loses some of its sweetness. It’s a fairy tale that speaks softly and carries a big stick.


The greatest indiscretion is Shyamalan’s casting of himself as the writer, Vick. This bit of ego massaging hurts the movie because he places himself in the most sympathetic role. It would have served his story better to cast another actor.


Yet, the movie does offer something important: faith in that which may sound too fantastic to believe. The power of Cleveland’s relationships allows him to enlist the tenants in getting Story home. To allow others to come into the world of belief, the movie seems to say there has to be relationship. 


So, how does one share faith? Can faith be shared cold, depending only on the Spirit to intervene, or does one need to cultivate relationship? Cleveland has spent years in service to these tenants. He is known and respected, and therefore it’s possible for the tenants to accept this fairy tale as being real. 


All of this harkens to Frederick Buechner’s belief that the gospel has a component of fairy tale. It’s the fairy tale where people’s true selves are revealed later. The Cove’s tenants are like characters in a fairy tale: They have abilities they do not know. But believing in a story told by a friend gives rise to their true selves.


“The Lady in the Water” is strongest here and merits consideration for this theme. 


Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some frightening sequences.

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writer: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Cleveland Heep: Paul Giamatti; Story: Bryce Dallas Howard; Mr. Farber: Bob Balaban; Vick: M. Night Shyamalan; Mr. Dury: Jeffery Wright; Mr. Leeds: Bill Irwin; Mrs. Bell: Mary Beth Hurt.


The movie’s official Web site is here.

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