M. Night Shyamalan is a film-making genius.
Okay, that’s outa the way, now to THE HAPPENING – one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best comedies. (Because if you don’t laugh at Zooey Deschanel’s “indicating” method of “acting” you must attend the same inept acting classes she does.)
In Shyamalan’s latest producer-writer-director effort, people of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard suddenly start offing themselves in an epidemic eventually diagnosed as a neurotoxin spread by plants via the wind. Film follows a young couple (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) on the run inland from the airborne toxin, wrenching intrigue and tension from every wind-tossed field and creaking tree bough they encounter. Underneath the eerie set pieces is a larger portent of a planet grown weary of its most destructive species, bringing about that species’ extinction on a grand scale.
Grandiose concept + morbidly inept cast = mediocre drama. Or a great comedy!
There are reviews aplenty on this clunker from M. Night, trying to identify the source of all the nothing; profound epistles exploring everything from M’s misanthropy to the film’s philosophical anomalies – but this film’s missteps are in full view of we the abused viewers…
Misstep Number One: Mr. Night, no matter how introspective Mark Wahlberg might have seemed playing an underdog footballer (INVINCIBLE, 2006), or how hard he slammed into his detective role in THE DEPARTED (2006), he was, in essence, just playing to type – a dumb jock and a mean dick. He has never actually been asked to “act” before. And though I’m sure you asked him to, no one has coached him past “concerned face” on page 7 of the Acting For Dummies Handbook.
Misstep Number Two: Mr. Night, Zooey Deschanel’s emotional palette runs from bland all the way to paint drying, her primo roles being ELF (2003) and THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005) – need I elaborate?; whereas your movie needed a lead actress who could juxtapose pathos, terror, empathy and devotion. That’s four emotions too many for zoophyte Zooey. And those constant bug eyes didn’t help, nor that miscast hairdo almost as bad as Gene Simmons.
John Leguizamo is sorely underused; he delivers one very powerful, tear-jerking line, “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it!” when he must choose to forsake her in search of his wife… Some may say he’s not forsaking her, he’s leaving her in the care of Marky and Zooey… well, that’s kinda the same thing…
Two character actors, Betty Buckley and Frank Collison, act eccentric circles around the lead dishrags, Buckley’s screentime as an old recluse coot, genuinely eerie – anything involving life-sized dolls sleeping in your bed as if they were real – I feel the hairs rising on my scary bits as I write this…
Night’s storytelling is still inimitable, his film-making talents still exceptional, but his leads are just too hilarious for words, with their Concerned Faces switching on and off with their Major Concerned Faces. Throughout the movie, we are in constant vacillation on whether we are watching people who simply haven’t the nuance to convey a world-girdling, life-altering Happening, or whether we are just unaware of how people would realistically react in such mind-numbing situations. The irony is: an inexpressive person like Mark Wahlberg probably would react so woodenly in situations where people were taking their lives all around him.
I mean, are we watching really bad acting or really good comedy?
Some of the extras haven’t even reached page 7, and attain lofty heights of distracted apathy and leaden aloofness. Speaking of distracted, the movie opens with Marky as a science teacher. Our first thought: “Not buying it!” Despite that, the cred levels out by showing us a quote attributed to Einstein: “If the bee disappears, man would have four years left.” Then the movie goes in a completely different direction. Wha-? Who-? Is this M. Night Shyamalan or Ed Wood Jr.? It doesn’t help that the “villain” of the film is a microbe transported on an invisible breeze…
Whereas Night’s movies have come to signify never wasting a frame on superfluity, ideas coalescing into a fist of compelling tale-telling, in THE HAPPENING, it comes as quite an irony that… nothing happens. Here, “no frame wasted” means stooping to that Gilligan’s Island staple of turning on a radio or TV and having it play exactly what is relevant to you at that moment: click on! “The virus is affecting the northern part of the state-” click off! His foreshadowing and otherwise spectacular eye for detail comes to no fruition in this banal and obvious film. Not that I am one of those screechy Night detractors puling for “The Twist” in every movie he cooks up, no – I look for Night’s ingenuity in the weaving of his tales. Here, his film-making ingenuity is egregiously stultified by lack of actors.
Night also over-reached with his self-referential slogan: “We’ve Sensed It. We’ve Seen the Signs. Now… It’s Happening.” (They’ve just replaced tacky in the dictionary with this tagline.)
There is gore galore, as if Night threw up his hands and figured that if they were gonna hate my movie after all this effort, I might as well show a guy’s arms torn off by lions and skyscraper workers in deadfall onto concrete.
The tepid love story was inserted sideways into the plot to please some Screenwriting 101 exec who wanted character arc for the sole purpose of adhering to Movie Rule Character Arc. Marky’s and Zooey’s estrangement and subsequent reconciliation serves no purpose whatsoever, except to make us cringe every time Zooey bugs her eyes at Marky, and Marky blandly flaps his mouth at Zooey. A mood ring on his finger inexplicably keeps changing colors, even though Marky only displays one emotion throughout the film (see page 7).
One of the movie’s many catch-phrases “There are forces at work beyond our understanding,” describes how Marky’s and Zooey’s casting agencies got past Night in the first place…