Lady in the Water (PG-13, for a good fright or two) is one of those films you have to let work on you. The challenge is that you can't stop asking, What kind of movie is this? A Fairy-Thriller. Or maybe a Thrillertale. It's The Sixth Sense meets The Hobbit.
At the top, a narrator tells us about these beings who live in the water and seek contact with humankind. So we're primed for fantasy and myth. But then we meet the lumpy Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), an apartment super, and this doesn't look like fantasy at all. He picks up trash, kills a bug, visits his oddball tenants.
Whenever something completely weird happens in a realistic movie-like an alien lands or a ghost shows up at dinner-the audience generally needs one of two things. We either want a scientific explanation, or we want the hero to freak out and make us feel normal. So it's no surprise that an ashen young lady named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives under the pool drain. The surprise comes when Cleveland Heep rescues her from an awesome beast, finds out she's a kind of sea nymph called a narf, and doesn't seem to think he's going nuts. What's going on here? This is Philadelphia, not Middle Earth.
But in Lady in the Water, Middle Earth and Philadelphia collide. This film is at once fable and fairy tale, comedy and drama, allegory and thriller. The plot turns into a puzzle, where Heep has to piece together clues of a sort, and it's quite fun to watch. Ultimately, the movie has us asking one of the most important questions an audience can ask: What happens next? And that makes it a good film.
Despite the fantastical nature of the work, our hero, Cleveland Heep, is about as round and real as they come. He is a flawed man who hurts, and he experiences a powerfully human moment of redemption and healing in the end. That's why you have to give yourself to the film. It takes faith to let art work on you. But if you let it, you'll be glad, in the end.