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It would be a mighty sweet thing to see M. Night Shyamalan as the great redemptive storyteller he clearly thinks he is — or as he portrays himself in those American Express commercials. Genuine yarn-spinning, even as a doomed ambition, is virtually extinct in American movies; what had been the system's priority in the studio years became, gradually, a neglected excuse for raw effect and ADD imagemaking. In a way, Shyamalan yearns to be modern movies' Somerset Maugham or even Stephen King — a compulsive story-lover dismissive of both postmodernism and technology, and what he promises is gobbled up, in all likelihood, because there is such a drought of narrative thinking in the cineplexes. Shyamalan's movies, however you might come at them, are at least attempts at making the tale an emotional experience, not the noise, the effects, the music, the violence, or the spastic editing.

Even so, Shyamalan certainly uses all of that and more in his constructions; it is, in fact, the stories that are the problem. That is to say, nothing will prepare you — not his previous films, not any reviews you may read, not even a lifetime spent watching Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cartoons — for the rampant foolishness of Lady in the Water. The Village, his last, distended elegy for Rod Serling, is, well, Rod Serling by comparison. It's as if, on some semiconscious level, Shyamalan — who I do not doubt is a serious and self-serious pop-creative original — is calling his own success into question and daring his audience to gulp down larger and spikier clusters of manure, just to see if they will. Or he's lost his mind.

I'm not sure I can get my critical jaws around this muffin, description-wise, and surely it cannot be done without some spoilage along the way. But: After cave-drawing animation that fills in the background of the film's fairy tale, we are plopped down into a very odd (meant to be quaint) apartment complex in the Philadelphia suburbs, occupied mostly by stereotype eccentrics (meant to be cute but often creepy). There's a bodybuilder who has bulked up only one half of his body (Freddy Rodriguez), a glowering shut-in (Bill Irwin), grown brother and sister roommates (Shyamalan and Sarita Choudhury), a cabal of inveterate potheads (the dialogue for which suggests that Shyamalan has never, ever been stoned), etc. Our sensibly named hero, superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), is a lonesome, big-hearted lug. We don't so much as see the parking lot, only the overgrown woods beyond the swimming pool. Soon, a water-logged nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) saves Heep after he falls in the pool; awakening in his flat, he's told by this ethereal gamine (Howard can act, but here she just stares) that she's a "narf," which is a new fairy moniker Shyamalan, hilariously, attributes to ancient Korean folklore.

A narf, you see, has to be seen by a chosen human every now and then, so that human will be inspired to greatness before the "scrunts" — large, grass-backed hyenas — kill her. But they can be held off by whoever's designated, somehow, as "the Guardian," with whose help (and that of a "Symbolist," a "Guild," and a "Healer") she can be hauled away by the "Great Eatlon" (a giant eagle) unless, of course, the "Tartutic" intervenes...

Holy free association, Batman. You'd think Shyamalan made this malarkey up in the editing room, but it has also manifested as a children's book (just published by Little, Brown), and its aboriginal, 150-word form makes just as little sense. What makes Lady in the Water a uniquely stultifying experience is how this bizarre concoction (outrageously un-Asian as it is) is explicated. Giamatti's schmo spends the bulk of the film piecing it together from hearsay, whim, the dribs of bedtime memory provided by a recalcitrant Korean mom, and, to the delight at least of drop-jawed critics, the knee-jerk cliché knowledge of a new tenant (Bob Balaban), who happens to be a film reviewer. (In one sweep, Shyamalan conforms his movie to critics' worst expectations, tells the critics they're wrong, and then imagines their execution.) Every fresh detail, rule, or exception is cause for exasperation, and the willful ignorance of real mythology, outpacing that of most high-schoolers, is significant. What scrunt yields when Googled is proof as well that Shyamalan don't surf. The film often has the driving tension of a paranoid psychotic, desperately trying to figure out the absolutely nonsensical.

This isn't magical realism; it's pure magical thinking — Shyamalan is mystically assuming that any idea or image that pops into his skull will make a shapely tale, no matter how much cock-and-bull logic he has to invent to Gorilla Glue it together. Like all of his movies, from The Sixth Sense on, Lady pivots on the dawning awareness of a vast cosmic plan, foisted on grieving parents and spouses as a holy scab for their wounds. It's beginning to chafe as a formula; I suspect Shyamalan's stock is long worthless among viewers who know about loss for real. Authorial vision is a nonissue, in the face of so much repetitive, rootless mumbo-jumbo.

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Michael Atkinson is a regular film contributor at the Village Voice. His work also appears in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.

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