The Happening, Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, Now Playing
I’ve never been too keen on M. Night Shyamalan’s work but next to The Happening, Signs seems Oscar worthy. Signs was (if you hadn’t heard) very bad, and in a nutshell The Happening is God-awful.
It’s never clear what’s happening in The Happening. The wind begins to blow in and people in Central Park stop dead in their tracks. A girl on a park bench pulls a chopstick from her hair and stabs herself in the neck with it. At a construction site workers begin to jump off scaffolding to their deaths.
Nearby, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo), two middle school teachers in dorky sweater vests, are informed about the strange occurrences, which are first said to be the work of terrorists. This explanation is ruled out in favor of another, then another. The theories as to what was going on ranged from possible nuclear power plant leaks to the apocalypse. Finally, it’s determined that plants were releasing toxic chemicals and poisoning people in reaction to humanity’s destruction of the earth. My theory is that some sort of airborne virus infected everyone involved in the production with the need to make a super shitty movie with an awful script, bad acting, and forced, lame jokes. Though it wouldn’t have saved the film, it would have been nice to see some scenes showing people actually taking samples of the plants, or investigating the nuclear sites, or searching the areas for terrorists. Anything besides a middle school science teacher miraculously figuring out how to save himself by throwing around a bunch of equations seconds before the winds hit him. The film projects this lack of effort on all fronts.
None of the actors seemed comfortable delivering their lines, and at times it felt as if you were watching an early script reading. They all seemed confused about what exactly they were saying and doing (who can blame them), and often looked to be desperately trying to hold in a fart. Zooey Deschanel is cast as Wahlberg’s wife, and their marital troubles make a boring subplot. Deschanel does a lot of talking with her hands, widening her already huge eyes and shifting back and forth on her feet. Wahlberg’s forced expressions make him look like a paler version of Lieutenant Worf on Star Trek. Turns out, his forehead is a better actor than he is.
The acting is weak, the plot worse. Shyamalan attempts to distract from these weaknesses with jokes. I was amused…that people actually laughed at these sad efforts. After the train on which they are trying to escape the happening is stopped, Deschanel and Wahlberg are picked up by a couple of stereotypical aging hippies, one of whom actually uses the expression “cheese and crackers” and who makes a long speech about how hot dogs are the most underrated food, which is referenced later with a close up shot of the old hippie holding a hotdog, smiling, and then taking a bite during a mass suicide. Perhaps if Shyamalan had cut these jokes the film may have been less annoying. (I think.) But one moment people are throwing themselves under tractors and the next Walberg is talking to a plastic plant with eyes that read “laugh at me... I’m hilarious!” It’s awfully hard to even give a shit.
The film’s best moment occurs when the couple takes refuge in a house in the middle of nowhere. Walberg approaches and is greeted by a generic looking crazy old woman sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair sporting mismatched, disheveled floral prints and combat boots, ferociously pursing her lips after each word she utters. They stay the night and in the morning stumble upon a room filled with pictures of Jesus and the most terrifying looking peg-legged doll ever lying on the bed, and shortly thereafter the crazy woman creeps up behind him hissing. This was scary. The success of this sequence underscores how little the blending of genres worked in the rest of the film. In the territory of a slasher film with the creepy house and over the top old crazy woman I finally became interested, but in a completely different movie. Why not just make a film about Wahlberg and Deschanel’s car breaking down and staying at the house of horrors? At least there could’ve been some hot sex scenes or graphic violence. It’s been done a million times, but people like that sort of thing. Instead this sequence was a brief vacation from the mostly boring and discombobulated rest of the film.
The film has one other moment of truth. Mark Wahlberg calls himself a douchebag. Considering he kept gazing at a mood ring throughout the film, this is an understatement. As the suicide wind finally reaches the house where Deschanel and Walberg are hiding—separated by a vent through which they are reminiscing about the origin of the mood ring and nauseatingly finishing each other’s sentences—they come to the realization that they really do love each other. Who cares?
The Happening was Shyamalan’s attempt to make a statement about the environment, and he failed big. By overstuffing The Happening with blockbuster clichés, he turned the film into an expensive orgy of mediocrity, more of a lesson to filmmakers on what not to do than a lesson on the damage humanity is doing to the earth.