I appreciate that instead of publishing a lengthy self-defense of his personal theory and practice of storytelling in a magazine or journal somewhere, MNS instead related it in movie form. After all, it is (nearly) always more interesting to watch a movie about movies than to read about movies. However, the best such movies that comment on their own medium are those that keep their commentary, no matter how obvious, in the subtext. The plots of Rear Window, Cache, and even X-Men 3 are good enough to keep you interested in their stories alone. Of course they also invite you to watch them as films about the medium itself, but their stories are self-sufficient and don’t rely solely on their metaphorical meanings to make them interesting.
Lady is undoubtedly a movie about MNS’s own movies, especially (it seems) his post-Sixth Sense ones. Unfortunately, its allegory is so bare that it is impossible to think about it as a movie about a nymph named Story without also thinking about it as a movie about story, or storytelling, or MNS’s storytelling. Worse, as a “bedtime story” it isn’t very interesting; its first half is enjoyable but thereafter its interest is derived only from its metaphorical value.
The themes of the literal-level plot which people seem to appreciate are those he has already done, such as everything and everyone (or a few people anyway) have an undiscovered purpose (Unbreakable, Signs), and fairy tales should be taken seriously because they might turn out to be true (Unbreakable again, though the Village reminds us that some stories are false). The only thing that Lady adds to these themes is using the plot itself as an allegory for writing and directing movies (not to mention producing them, as we are ever reminded). But so much attention is given to exposing such mechanics that the purpose they serve, ironically, is neglected.
I love self-awareness in art, works that recognize their medium and production as essential to their effect, both positively and negatively. I have to give MNS credit for casting himself in the role of the Important Writer because anything less would have been a cop out on his part. I loved the bit where the critic tells the audience what our reaction should be.
But the end result in the case of Lady is unfortunately a more boring version of Adaptation and a more pretentious version of Scream that applies to a much smaller genre (members: 4 films). I admire MNS’s brazenness in pulling back the curtain to show us the inner workings of his artistic process, from inspiration to execution. But in this process unfortunately story got the axe.
Perhaps that is the inevitable result of beginning with critical theory then trying to conceive a story to illustrate it, instead of letting yourself be inspired by Story before all else. If that’s the story in this case, then shame on MNS for not following his own criticism. Since that’s what Lady in the Water is more than anything else, it’s more suited for the Secondary Texts section of a film class bibliography than on the page of Primary Sources.