Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard

BY LEAH ROZEN

DRAMA

During writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's latest, a smug film critic (Bob Balaban) kvetches, "There is no originality left in the world." Shyamalan (The Village) is determined to prove the guy wrong. In this supernatural story about a handyman (Giamatti) who rallies residents of an apartment complex to save a water nymph from the forces of evil, the strain shows. Lady in the Water is different, all right. It's also a self-important yawn.

Shyamalan (who also made The Sixth Sense and Signs) is to be commended for eschewing formulaic pap. But Lady fails to heed the fundamental rule of drama: Show, don't tell. Characters ploddingly explain their every action, except for the damp nymph (Howard), who is mostly mute throughout. Shyamalan modestly cast himself in Lady as a character whose writings are destined to change the world. Not this time, bub. (PG-13)

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Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette
CRITIC'S CHOICE
COMEDY

Big hits at the Sundance Film Festival have a history of fizzling at the multiplex. Here's hoping Little Miss Sunshine, a cheery black comedy about a cheerless family on the road trip from hell, doesn't. A critical smash at this year's festival, it sparkles thanks to a hilarious script and splendid acting.

The Hoovers are a spectacularly dysfunctional crew: Dad (Kinnear) is a failed motivational speaker; Uncle Frank (Carell) is a suicidal Proust scholar; Mom (Collette) is barely hanging on; the teen son (Paul Dano) refuses to speak; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a foulmouthed, porn-loving druggie. When the family piles into an aged VW bus to take daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin, in a winning turn) to compete two states away in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, wacky misadventures ensue. This one may be a dark comedy, but it leaves you feeling sunny and satisfied. (R)

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Voices by Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mitchel Musso, Jason Lee
ANIMATED

Before this screening, I remarked on how crowded the theater was. "Of course," said my exasperated 6-year-old companion. "Everyone wants to see Monster House. It's a good movie." He felt the same way when the final credits rolled, having been enormously entertained by the antics of three plucky 12-year-olds who bravely discover the secret behind a haunted house. House —which would be too scary if it were live-action—showcases slippery-smooth animation and solid voice work by Gyllenhaal, Buscemi and others. (PG)

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Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith
COMEDY

If you really want to bust the raunch-o-meter, it's tough to beat showing a person having sex with a donkey. But if you can sit through that—the scene is played for laughs, and gets 'em—you'll likely enjoy Clerks II, writer-director Kevin Smith's belated sequel to his '94 cult hit. Dante (O'Halloran) and Randal (Anderson) are still two unambitious lugs doing their best to avoid adulthood even though both are now in their 30s—until Dante announces he's getting married. Clerks II shows Smith is uninterested in stretching as a filmmaker, much less moving beyond having his characters engage in extended, fan-boyish Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings debates. But the end result is such affably rowdy fluff that it would be churlish to complain. (R)

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ODD MAN OUT

He's known for his TV roles as a socially arrested salesman (The Office) and a peculiar undertaker (Six Feet Under). And he's playing another eccentric—Luke Wilson's boorish pal—in My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Is he as weird as he seems onscreen? "I'm a little offbeat, but I'm not a weirdo," says Rainn, 40. "It's fun to revisit my inner teenage über-geek." Having uncontrollable hair "helps," he says. "Hopefully, I can keep it for a few more years."

The director tells PEOPLE what he values most.

MY 10,000+ DVD COLLECTION I go into the DVD store every Tuesday and spend $300 to $500. I don't do drugs, I don't booze it up—that's my vice right there.

MY CHASING AMY POKER TABLE We made chips that have animated versions of Jay, Silent Bob, Dante and Randal on them. We play a lot of poker in the house.

MY DAUGHTER'S PORTRAIT It's a massive painting of Harley by Gottfried Helnwein. I wept when I saw it. It's my most prized possession.