Sometimes when the stuffy bureaucracy of the movie studio tries to rein-in and compromise a visionary filmmaker, history proves that the suits were right. Disney and Lady in the Water writer/director/producer/actor M. Night Shyamalan parted company due to "creative differences" and Shyamalan landed at Warner Brothers and made the movie that the bean counters at Disney kept telling him shouldn't be made. It's possible that whatever changes Disney wanted to make would have made this mediocre movie even worse, but, at least in this case, staying true to his own vision was the wrong move for Shyamalan.
As was noted in both the trailer of the movie and interviews with M. Night Shyamalan, Lady in the Water was originally a bedtime story that Shyamalan told his daughters. Although expanded to feature-film length, the core story still comes across as something flimsy and half-formed, as though it was being made up on the fly by someone nightly in their daughter's bedroom. Plot holes and barely understood characters are the rule of the day and try as he might, Shyamalan the director can't make a go of what Shyamalan the writer has given him.
The aptly named Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), is the stuttering super of a non-descript apartment building. When not fixing sinks and killing spiders, he tries to figure out who is swimming in the complex pool. It turns out to be Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a narf from the "Blue World." Narfs have vaguely defined powers in relation to humans, but one of them is, apparently, curing writers block. Since the complex has a blocked writer, Vick (Shyamalan), Story does whatever it is she does for him (it seems to just be being in his presence) and Vick is ready to write a book that will inspire someone who reads it to change the world. Unfortunately, after Story unclogs Vick's brain for him, she still has to get home, carried there by a giant eagle. There are all sorts of rules that go along with this (isn't that always the way) and she's being stalked by a scrunt. A scrunt is a dog made out of grass (don't worry, the monkey-like tree creatures are after the grass dog). Heep tries to get the odd-ball tenants of the building (Jeffery Wright, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, Cindy Cheung, Sarita Choudhury) to help get Story to her rendezvous with the giant eagle (which, in a nice change, is made out of eagle parts, just bigger).
The types of questions that are raised by the, at turns, simplistic and nonsensical plot are never fully answered. The idea, it seems, is to forget nitpicking the numerous contradictions, plot-holes, undeveloped characters, and implausibilities and just sorta.....go with it. Release your inner-child and dream of a better world and a better connection with the muse inside all of us. Or maybe not. It's never clear what point Shyamalan is trying to get across and therefore, the audience doesn't want to invest in anything that's happening. Since there doesn't seem to be a point, it comes down to the story about Story and that story is really kind of, well, dumb.
It's not all bad, of course. Giamatti gives his all and makes you believe in a sad lonely man trying to do a great thing. Howard is almost too brittle and withdrawn to make Story a character that you care about, but many of the building tenants are either humorous or interesting. At times you might wish Shyamalan would have dumped the mythical creatures and what not and just shown what is going on with all these sometimes interesting people. Also, as with The Village, Shyamalan is great at setting a mood, making you believe that something thrilling is just around the corner, but this time without much payoff.
A mediocre movie can sometimes be boosted on DVD by an excellent transfer, a strong collection of extras, and an entertaining commentary or two. With this release, you get one out of three, which doesn't do the trick.
Shyamalan does not provide a commentary track for the movie. This appears to be his usual practice, as he hasn't provided a commentary for any of his previous films. It's certainly his prerogative and he's not the only big name director to eschew the feature, but why not have some of the other technical people or cast members provided a commentary. The point is to get people to buy or rent the dang thing.
What is provided is well done, but not substantial. A 30 minute making-of documentary covers most of the key areas of production, including casting, writing, the look, and post-production. All of the key people are interviewed, including Shyamalan. He gives insight into what he was going for in the movie, it's a shame that it didn't really get realized on screen. The cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, who has done a lot of Chinese action movies (including Hero, seems like a real interesting guy and probably warranted his own 30 minute featurette.
After the featurette, there isn't a whole lot to hold your attention. There are a few deleted scenes, but they are so raw and poorly lit that it's almost not worth watching them. A two minute segment titled "Auditions" might lead you to believe you will see screen tests of some of the leads. Instead, you primarily get some third-tier characters who are all attempting to get the part of a guy getting sick and puking at a party scene. So, if seeing five guys pretend to drink a beer and then ralph is your idea of entertainment, you'll be on Cloud 9. There is also a short gag reel and a copy of the trailer, which makes the movie look a lot more interesting than it actually is.
The final extra is a commercial of sorts for a book Shyamalan wrote to coincide with the movie. It's a children's book and the illustrations are by the movie's creature designer, Crash McCreery. Shyamalan reads a small portion of the book and shows some illustrations. It probably would have been more interesting for him to just read the whole book rather than talking about how he came about writing the story and what he thinks about the pictures.
In contrast to the lack of commentary and middling extras, the transfer is excellent. Very crisp picture, which is important for the atmosphere that Shyamalan is known for. The sound is top-notch, and since Howard often speaks in a voice barely above a whisper, this is more important than in some movies. But, like the movie itself, there really isn't enough to recommend this disc to any but the most hard core Night fans.