' ' Cinema Romantico: The Happening

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Happening

What a majority of the moviegoing world probably suspected in the wake of "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" can now be confirmed after "The Happening" and confirmed with alarming authority. That is, M. Night Shyamalan has lost his marbles. He's fallen right off his rocker. He's gone bat guano crazy. You know the episode in "Seinfeld" where Kramer goes to work at Brandt-Leland and Mr. Leland calls Kramer into his office to go over the reports he handed in and declares, utterly confused, "I don't know what this is supposed to be." The look Mr. Leland has on his face is the same look I had for most of "The Happening". In the atrocious third act I wanted to turn to someone, anyone, in the audience and say, "I don't know what this is supposed to be."

Well, maybe I do know a little. It wants to be a scary movie that preaches. An eco-friendly horror movie. The world's first? I think so, and I also think it will be the last. As it opens, something is in New York City's Central Park wind as everyone freezes, getting all zombie-like, and then choosing to commit suicide, usually by extreme methods, and this "event" quickly spreads throughout the northeastern U.S. We then switch to a Philadelphia school where science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is helpfully telegraphing plot points to his class before the Principal pulls everyone aside, advises of the "event" and sends everyone home. A fellow teacher (John Leguizamo) and his daughter are headed out of town on the train so Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) tag along, though unfortunately husband and wife have some relationship trouble. Before long, however, the screenwriter has the fellow teacher depart the scene so Elliot and Alma can have a kid with them for the remainder of the....errr, wait a second....the fellow teacher leaves so he can attempt to rescue his wife in Princeton, New Jersey and, by doing so, leave his child with Elliot and Alma. Yes, that's it.

Essentially this film is just "Signs" inverted (when in doubt copy your formula and tweak). Whereas "Signs", as established in my recent Great Movies review, built from the ground up with characters first, in "The Happening" Shyamalan doesn't bother with the necessary groundwork, beginning with the "event" first. This is critical because nothing that happens to our main couple feels convincing. We know Elliot is telegraphing a plot point with his speech because we haven't had time to get to know him. We don't believe their relationship problems because, well, Shyamalan's script doesn't really do a damn thing to put these on display. Alma gets a couple text messages from some guy named Joey who Elliot apparently doesn't know but that's about it. Alma is also established as someone who conceals her emotions but this feels even more slight, as if midway through filming Shyamalan realized how feeble the subplot was and just that threw in there - "Uh, Zooey, we're gonna' have you bottle up your feelings since I didn't really provide you any feelings to express. You don't mind, do you?"

I'd never failed to see Deschanel give a great performance (even in the otherwise paltry Katie Holmes' vehicle "Abandon") but that's all changed. Her acting is based on unique facial expressions and line readings and "The Happening" requires her to be constantly stoic and give no great lines and, thus, she sinks into an abyss. Wahlberg fares better, making even most of his absurd moments realistic, but my kingdom never to hear him recite the line "Mrs. Jones?" ever, ever again. (If you don't see the movie you won't know what I'm talking about and, believe me, it's better that way.)

The main issue here, though, is Shyamalan's direction. I struggle to find a word to properly summarize it. Stilted? Lifeless? Amateurish? It feels like a student project by some halfwit at the University of New Hampshire. Time and again he fails to pull off even the most standard of shots, deploying his actors in the frame in strange and illogical ways. I cannot fathom that a director at this level could be so terrible at Filmmaking 101.

Remember how we discussed his ability to generate suspense by showing nothing? Well, there was much do about "The Happening" being his first R-rated film and I think it hinders him. By showing too much it makes everything less effective. Watch a girl jam a pen into her neck! Watch a guy lay down in front of a lawn mower! Watch a tiger rip off a guys' arms! (That scene, by the way, is less believable than Luke Wilson getting his second arm torn off in "Anchorman".) And the aforementioned third act delves into Z-grade Hitchcock. It was so terrible people in the audience were laughing, and not because it was supposed to be funny.

Say what you want about "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" - they both suffered massive story breakdowns - but at least they were made by a director who was assured, who seemed in command of how to use a movie camera. "The Happening" is just catastrophic on all levels.

Maybe Shyamalan needs to take an extended vacation. Maybe he just needs to disappear for a few years like Terrence Malick. I don't know, but he's gotta do something or otherwise the only "event" anyone will remember from "The Happening" was the final nail being pounded into the coffin of his career.


Anonymous said...

Is the twist that at the end of the movie Dirk Diggler wakes up, realizes it was all a dream, and is then bummed out because he's still a washed-up porn star?

Anonymous said...

This is up there with the very worst movies I've ever seen. I've seen Manos: The Hands of Fate, Howard the Duck, and the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space. At least the ridiculousness of those films had me a little entertained. The Happening nearly made me lose my faith in humanity... well I'm exaggerating, but you get my point!