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M. Night Shyamalan achieves something amazing in his latest film, The Happening. Not only has he made a film about people killing themselves, his film actually makes people want to kill themselves. Seriously, when one character sits in the middle of the street and takes a piece of glass to his own wrist, I thought, ”Lucky bastard.”
Like the wind, which plays a critical role in this movie, The Happening really blows.
One of the allures of a Shyamalan film is wondering what the big twist is going to be in the end. Ever since the hairpin turn in The Sixth Sense, audiences have sat on the edge of their popcorn-covered seats in anticipation of the final reveal. In The Happening, the big surprise is just how bad the movie actually is.
Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a teacher minding his own business — which happens to be teaching his students to question the mysterious disappearance of bees — when an attack hits Central Park in New York City. Inexplicably, people are killing themselves in a variety of ways: needles through the neck, walking off buildings, and the age-old gunshot to the head. You name it and you’re probably bound to see someone off himself or herself that way.
Elliot, his semi-estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), teacher pal (John Leguizamo) and the pal’s daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) hit the road in an attempt to escape the ever-growing danger. When their train stops in a small Pennsylvania town, the group continues their quest for safety by car and, later, by foot. Why they don’t get back on the train and keep going is just one of the countless inconsistencies that mar the film. Simply put, there is absolutely nothing cohesive in The Happening. The plot is riddled with holes, the actors give laughable performances, and the only frightening moment is a jump-out-of-the-dark scare that ends up turning into a giggle.
Where’s the suspense, the intrigue, the empathy for the characters? Where is the big surprise ending that we’ve been anticipating for the past 90 minutes? Like the bees, it’s nowhere to be found.
There is no word to describe Wahlberg’s performance other than hammy. He’s trying to get across the point that Elliot is a reluctant and unlikely hero, which is probably why any emotion other than incredulous feels incredibly forced. It’s still better than Deschanel, who plays the emotionally repressed Alma like a child who was just caught with her hand in the cookie jar. It’s clear she’s hiding something, and for a while I wondered if the secret was that she was high. There’s something about that vacant stare that seems a little too stoned.
Leguizamo is actually the best of the three adult actors (not high praise), but his on-screen daughter played by Sanchez is the most realistic and least annoying of the cast. She’s silent through large portions of the film, and maybe that’s her trick — she’s not saddled with Shyamalan’s stilted dialogue.
The Happening is Shyamalan’s first R-rated film, and it feels like he spent half his time creating outlandish ways to kill oneself and the other half trying to make them graphic on screen. If a fraction of that energy had gone into plot development — perhaps deepening the relationship between Elliot and Alma — the whole film would have benefited.
The movie is not without its moments of entertainment. Some great laughs can be had during the film, even though snickering might not have been the original intention. Highlights include actress Betty Buckley putting her head through a window, Elliot explaining his near-purchase of cough syrup, a strange homage to hot dogs, and as bodies plummeted down from a construction site, I couldn’t help but have a chorus of ”It’s Raining Men” go through my head.
When a movie is this bad, one has to question if the director was trying to achieve something more akin to camp than to a traditional suspense film. Even if viewed through that lens, it’s still pretty atrocious.
After Shyamalan’s last dud, Lady in the Water, he needed to pull out all the stops on this project. Amazingly, he managed to outdo himself — who knew that there was something lower than rock bottom?