The Happening (2008)

Badly flawed

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on June 19, 2008 in Fayetteville Free Weekly.

Intriguing premise, but a laughable dud

Seeing The Happening is like going on an outing with an earnest person, who happens to be a drunk. Every time it starts to make sense, it slurs its speech and starts dropping things -- such as coherence and credibility.

I suppose one could laugh at the bibulous antics. The Happening turns out to be a laughable dud.

It's too bad, because the film has an intriguing premise. Large groups of people suddenly become motionless, and then they kill themselves. The horror spreads across Northeast America from Central Park in New York, to Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, to Princeton, New Jersey, to other natural environs.

What is to blame? The first guess is that it is terrorists. Then nature seems as though it may be the cause.

Why doesn't The Happening work? It's perplexing to wonder what writer and director M. Night Shyamalan was after.

Was he trying to parody an old episode of The Twilight Zone? Whatever Shyamalan was trying to do, he fails abjectly.

Shyamalan made a near-perfect movie with The Sixth Sense (1999), but his deft touch has turned leaden. Since The Sixth Sense, his career has been on a downward spiral. It hit bottom with the ludicrous The Village in 2004.

Some people think it hit bottom again with The Lady in the Water (2006). If so, The Happening is the third time Shyamalan has hit bottom. Shyamalan seems to have staked out his claim at the bottom.

The characters in The Happening seem like a collection of dimwits. Only Mark Wahlberg survives with his humanity intact, though it's pretty tattered.

Wahlberg plays Elliott Moore, a high school science teacher who becomes the intrepid leader of a small, fluctuating, band of would-be survivors.

John Leguizamo and Ashlyn Sanchez are passable as a father and daughter. The rest of the cast is unpassable.

Was Shyamalan trying to get a really awful performance from Zooey Deschanel, who play Elliott's wife Alma? If so, this is the one area in which he succeeds.

Zooey has got to be the favorite for the Golden Raspberry award as worst actress of the year. She gives her best effort at being a zombie, but nobody told her The Happening is not a zombie movie.

Her sister Emily (TV's Bones) got all the talent in the family; none was left for poor Zooey.

Maybe Shyamalan wanted Zooey to be outacted by the furniture.

Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron's daughter) was appealing in The Village and The Lady in the Water, although both movies sank like moss-covered stones. Deschanel has no such appeal; she just sinks.

Shyamalan also gave Zooey outrageous dialogue. "What is the color of love?" Alma asks.

"People are setting off plants," Alma says matter-of-factly.

"There was this guy named Joey," she says. "We had dessert. I feel guilty. I wanted to tell you, in case we die." That's not exactly Ophelia.

In the end credits, Shyamalan, who thinks he's Hitchcock, is credited with being Joey, who sends Alma text messages. This is not Hitch's newspaper photo in Lifeboat.

"Can you believe how crappy people are?" she asks. Can you believe how crappy the dialogue is?

The other characters are equally dumb. Frank Collison, as a nursery owner (Shyamalan's answer to Hitch's ornithologist in The Birds), competes with Deschanel for best tone-deaf performance. Betty Buckley hams it up as a recluse house owner.

The music by James Newton Howard is vegetable soup. Shyamalan is a student of film. Many of the horrific images of the dead remind us of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and there is a scene in a bedroom right out of Hitchcock's Psycho, as well as images and characters reminiscent of those in The Birds.

But Spielberg and Hitch are masters; M. Night Shyamalan has turned out to be a wannabe.

In making The Happening, Shyamalan tried to make a zealous movie about protecting the planet. In doing so, he lost his wits.

Shyamalan must have been smoking some plants.


You might be interested in reading my most recent reviews, all of my reviews from this year, or all of my reviews from last year.

For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).


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