One star (R)
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is hapless. In a few scenes, the film achieves something close to a sense of disquiet and that’s about as good as this one gets. It’s poorly assembled and acted. It isn’t scary. It isn’t emotionally engaging. It isn’t much of anything. Shyamalan has put together a thriller without thrills.
Or maybe I’m prejudiced or stupid. As of this writing, 21 percent of the 129 reviews collected at rottentomatoes.com are positive. What’s irritating is that several of the more well-known advocates for the movie try to dismiss the negative reviews by claiming that Shyamalan has fallen out of grace with reviewers so badly that they were predisposed to hate the film even before they saw it. Others maintain that Shyamalan is being subtle and that those that dislike the movie are simply too thick to understand it.
Let me state clearly that I am not gunning for M. Night Shyamalan. I thought he did a bang-up job on The Sixth Sense and I have no strong feelings one way or the other about him personally. As for whether I’m too dense to grasp the movie, you’ll have to decide.
So what is The Happening? Imagine The Birds without birds and you’ll get the basic idea. Something happens to people and they abruptly kill themselves. It starts in New York’s Central Park and soon spreads across Manhattan and to other cities. Authorities initially believe it to be a biological attack by terrorists, but it turns out to be something else. Maybe.
The story, such as it is, follows a Philadelphia high school teacher (Mark Wahlberg) as he leaves town with his wife (Zooey Deschanel), friend (John Leguizamo) and friend’s young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) to avoid the plague.
A viable premise, if the filmmaker knew what to do with it. But for a thriller to work you must identify with the people and the people here don’t act like people, they act like characters from a mundane Twilight Zone episode. The early suicides are presented in a stiff, overly formal fashion that robs the acts of credibility. The problems with believability continue throughout the movie. In one particularly annoying scene, the sound of nearby suicides can be heard and everyone turns to Wahlberg for leadership and guidance. Why? Because he’s a science teacher or a natural leader? No, because he’s the star. One character (Deschanel, I think) even screams that she will not be “one of those people that stands by during a tragedy and does nothing.” So why doesn’t she do something instead of standing there, yelling?
About the performances — Mark Wahlberg is a talented actor, but for most of The Happening he speaks in a breathy, high-pitched voice while maintaining a severely furrowed brow. Painful. The others are just as one-note. As written by Shyamalan, the primary characters are unusually bland and the secondary characters — the ones the stars meet while fleeing from civilization — are crazy people (Betty Buckley, the mother from Eight Is Enough, turns up as a whacked-out old lady).
And why is this plague happening? Nature is fighting back, some suppose. Nobody really knows for sure, but in one scene, an expert on TV predicts the time when the crisis will end, allowing an idiotic romantic gesture by Wahlberg’s character late in the film to end well. What gesture? To get to his wife, the high school science teacher strides boldly into what he believes to be contaminated air. So why didn’t he hold his breath and run?
Because The Happening is that bad.