Fans of actor Paul Giamatti or of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan may get something out of Lady in the Water, a fractured fairy tale about a water nymph who comes to a Philadelphia apartment house to deliver an important message. Anyone else is likely to be perplexed by the muddled mythmaking or actively astonished at the self-indulgent ego of a writer-director-producer who casts himself in the role of a visionary writer whose martyrdom will change the world. Oh my to speak.

Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, the superintendent of one of those apartment houses you always see in movies, where everybody knows everybody and it's like an extended family. Harboring a tragic secret and afflicted by a stutter, Heep discovers an ageless, ethereal, amphibious young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard) living in a watery space beneath the pool. She is, he discovers, a "narf"-a Shyamalan-concocted form of water nymph-whose portentous name is Story.

The movie certainly has plenty of that, starting with a long voiceover explaining how the worlds of water-women and land-men separated eons ago, and men made war, and forgot to listen to nature, but every so often a narf comes back to deliver a message. Shyamalan later offers reams of back-story and made-up folklore about narfs, plus "scrunts" and "tartutics," mostly delivered by an old Korean lady-let's call her Mrs. Exposition-whenever the tell-but-not-show plot needs to move forward.

Author Salman Rushdie covered much the same ground-er, water-in his young-reader novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1991), in which a water genie named Iff was a focal point for a story about the nature of stories and storytelling. Shyamalan's take is more like an adventure videogame, in which Heep must discover the community's Healer and Guild and other avatars, as well as such artifacts as Story's magical mud, in order to keep the narf alive, help her deliver her message, and avoid the wolf-like scrunts trying to keep her from returning home to her "Blue World."

Giamatti is amazing in a difficult role that requires him to not only suspend his own disbelief, but to convince the apartment dwellers that all this is real and that there's a perfectly good reason why a half-naked wet girl who looks like she could be 16 years old is in his bungalow on the grounds. His character has a surprisingly easy time doing so, considering that the internal logic of Shyamalan's myth-originally conceived as a bedtime story for his daughters-keeps changing. Story is portrayed as fragile, not superhumanly strong, for instance, yet she somehow (off-camera) manages to carry a heavy, unconscious, dead-weight Heep back to his place from the pool. There's a deus ex machina device toward the end involving the monkey-like tartutics, who could have done what they do all along, and characters who pull magic plot points out of their hats, and just a lot of hurly-burly babble.

In one remarkable show of defensiveness, Shyamalan-whose movies outside The Sixth Sense are rarely reviewed well-has Bob Balaban play a pompous, humorless movie critic who meets a surprisingly petty and vindictive fate for a story that claims to be about universal themes and eternal verities.

Howard deserves kudos for making her impossibly vague character seem as real as a Hobbit and more real than Luke Skywalker. And Christopher Doyle's cinematography is lush and lovely. But this is no future cult-gem. This isn't some misunderstood Rocky Horror Picture Show that initial audiences and critics didn't get. We get it. We just don't want it. Because this Lady is the Showgirls of fantasy films.

-Frank Lovece