Aspiring directors should rush to see Lady in the Water for a lesson in what can happen when a young film-maker starts to believe he is infallible. Everyone else should approach with caution. This picture isn't just bad - it's bad in entirely new and astonishing ways.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is superintendent at the Cove, an apartment complex where the tenants include a crossword obsessive (Jeffrey Wright), a dope-smoking dandy (Jared Harris) and a weightlifter (Freddy Rodríguez) who works out on only one side of his body. With this company, the water nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who emerges from the communal pool one night and seeks refuge with Cleveland, fits right in. She is a Narf who has come to teach mankind about its future, and is due to be whisked back to the Blue World by an eagle before she can be devoured by the Scrunt (an ill-tempered hyena), or menaced by the Tartutic (monkeys with bark for skin). Got all that?
I know what you're thinking: a Narf is a Narf. But this is the cod-mystical vein in which Lady in the Water proceeds. An old Asian woman - Hollywood's preferred type of exotic sage - turns up conveniently to deliver cryptic information, while Story intuits so many secrets about Cleveland that you wonder if her real name isn't Back Story.
It's a shame the film divulges details of Cleveland's troubled past when one shrug from the dishevelled Paul Giamatti, an actor who looks like he was born on the wrong side of the bed, says it all. But then overstatement is the speciality of the writer-director M Night Shyamalan, who never shows us something if he can tell it to us, preferably in portentous tones. The difference between Lady in the Water and his other, equally silly films, such as The Sixth Sense (1999), is that the new picture has not been thought out properly; that much becomes clear when a young boy starts deciphering prophecies in the small print on cereal boxes. The film began as a bedtime story for Shyamalan's daughters, and the script shows no evidence of having undergone any redrafts. Even a child would have to ask: Where is all this heading, Daddy?
As Story wanders around muttering "It is time" and "You must invoke the ancient words", no one seems to notice her essential pointlessness. She risks her life just to reassure the Cove's tenants that they have a purpose, and doles out the kind of woolly predictions available in any tabloid astrology column. Why she does all this is never clear, and consequently it's hard to give a Scrunt about what's going on. In what might be the film's crowning flaw, Shyamalan casts himself as an author whose new book will, according to Story, change civilisation for ever. He even awards himself the line, "I'm not anything special, so why are people suddenly going to take me seriously?" You said it, pal.
Jared Hess is 27 years old - a year younger than Shyamalan was when he made The Sixth Sense, but this writer-director is also looking prematurely washed up. In the slapstick comedy Nacho Libre, Hess's follow-up to 2004's oddball Napoleon Dynamite, Jack Black plays Nacho, a curly-haired cook in a Mexican monastery who moonlights as a wrestler on the no-holds-barred "lucha libre" circuit. The excuse for Nacho's extra-curricular escapades is that he wants to provide for the orphans in the monastery's care, and to impress Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), but we know it's because the film-makers think he looks amusing in tights.
Personally, I've had my fill of Black's self-absorbed shtick. Much sweeter is the newcomer Héctor Jiménez as Esqueleto, Nacho's scrawny sidekick. With a mouth full of broken yellow teeth and a wrestling style that extends to flailing like a daddy-long-legs, he's a real one-off. Even so, Nacho Libre teeters on the verge of being funny without ever raising more than a weak smile. I think Hess means to leave us wanting more. In fact, he leaves us wanting to watch something else.
Pick of the week
Sisters in Law
dirs: Florence Ayisi, Kim Longinotto
Intriguing documentary about a female prosecutor and a magistrate in Kumba, Cameroon.
Monster House (PG)
dir: Gil Kenan
Jolly animated adventure bearing the Spielberg brand of scary fun.
Three Times (12A)
dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Two actors play three different couples in this portmanteau love story.