Friday, June 13, 2008

"The Happening" -- *

In the last couple of years, there seems to have been an almost sadistic desire by the media and movie aficionados to see M. Night Shyamalan fail as a filmmaker and a certain malicious glee exuded when he has. I guess it's understandable, considering his very public ego and steady self-proclamations of brilliance, but I've never been one of those people; I've always rooted for this guy to succeed. Whether he's cracked in the head, or misguided at best, I'm all for anyone with an extremely creative, ambitious and unique voice to continue making movies, if only to give us respite from the processed, assembly-line output that makes up much of what we see filling our multiplexes. I may not always be pleased with what he gives us, but I've always been glad he's out there, been a cheerleader of sorts, and an occasional defender (more on that later). So while I take no particular glee in reporting that "The Happening" is easily the worst movie Shyamalan has made so far, it is unquestionably that. I will say, however, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, that it takes true talent to make a film this extraordinarily bad. Skin-crawlingly preachy, seat-tappingly tedious, and filled with such appallingly awful acting and half-thought-out ideas, it's a giant waste of time for everyone, no one more so than Shyamalan.

Opening with an ominous credits sequence of fast-encroaching clouds laid over a font and score clearly emulating (like the movie itself) Shyamalan's own "Signs," the movie starts off with the shit immediately hitting the fan. It's 8:33 a.m. in New York's Central Park, and suddenly, dozens of casual park-goers become immobile, freezing in place, before promptly mutilating themselves and/or committing suicide. Just as our appetite's being whet, we cut to Philadelphia high school biology teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg).... let me repeat that: high school biology teacher Mark Wahlberg. Yeah. Anyway, mid-class, Elliot hears of the events in the park -- and numerous other parks -- and he, along with everyone else, assumes the cause is bio-terrorism; all people know is that whatever's causing people to do this to themselves is airborne, and it's happening in random spots in the Northeast. Ever-responsive, Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), whose marriage has been on the rocks lately, hit the road, along with fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), to try to escape or out-run this airborne virus. When their train breaks down in Filbert, PA, Julian leaves Jess with the trouble couple, as he tries to go search for his still-in-the-city wife. As Elliot, Alma (who keeps getting cell phone calls from a 'Joey') and Jess make their way across Pennsylvania, they intermittently run into other refugees and join forces, but keep finding dead bodies in their paths, indicating this dangerous wind is coming in their direction. We find out very early on what's causing this to happen, and while I'll let you discover it for yourself, I will say that Shyamalan's screenplay was originally titled "The Green Effect."

In my ever-optimistic nature, I'll start with what's good here. James Newton Howard's score, while extremely reminiscent of "Signs," is very effective throughout, and often does a nice job establishing atmosphere when the movie itself can't. Also the opening ten minutes, largely spoiled by the ads, are gangbusters. With people suddenly, and without expression, offing themselves in exceedingly creative ways, Shyamalan throws a plethora of unsettling imagery at us, and staged in a clever, chilling manner (a sequence of an assembly line of folks shooting themselves in the head stops just short of going from scary to silly). It's an opening the film can't come close to living up to, nor does it try to; this opening is the hook the movie's being sold on, but there's not much of it there. The film, while frequently meandering and dreary, isn't particularly boring, so I guess that's a plus -- the promise of something horrific happening hangs in the air, and adds an air of menace to everything even when we're rolling our eyes or staring in disbelief. And lastly, even while ripping off elements from "The Signal," "War of the Worlds," "The Mist" and "The Birds," at the movie's core lies a fantastic idea. Again, I'll try to avoid flatly giving away who/what's causing all this mayhem, but once it's revealed, I knew exactly what Shyamalan was trying to do, and I actually got excited. This premise, if done right, has potential to be fucking terrifying. Almost inexplicably, Shyamalan takes it and uses it to its most base, lame, B-movie mechanics, and repeatedly torpedoes the movie's potential. There's a germ of a terrific idea here, and I hope someone else steals it and runs with it, exploiting it for its real possibilities/implications.

Shyamalan's noble, stump issue this time around is environmentalism and harsh, deserved criticism for the way we're treating our planet. But rather than do this with any degree of subtlety, substance or insight, the misunderstood-genius filmmaker goes on frequent bouts of moralizing, and the screenplay is rife with high school senior-level metaphor. There are numerous characters that purely, and obviously, exist as symbols/metaphor. First we get a student of Elliot's who doesn't care about global warming because it doesn't effect him. Then later on, we get a character who literally says "The world don't care about me, and I don't care about it!" Hmm, wonder if that character will symbolically meet their doom? For the slightly-less-brain-dead audience members, there's a ham-handed image here of a nuclear power plant right behind a greenhouse, and in a touch that made me particularly cringe, our main group of environment-fleers running past a real estate sign that proclaims "You Deserve This!"

I will try my best to avoid hyperbole, but the performances here by our leads are, frankly, astonishing. Displaying acting that seems straight out of children's theatre acting with big, emphatic, mannered delivery, Deschanel and especially Wahlberg are so dramatically awful that I can't imagine they'll provoke anything but consistent chuckles. I never knew either actor was capable of being this bad, and I'm half-tempted to recommend the movie just to see their work on the big screen. Whether it's a result of an acting choice or a directorial instruction, Wahlberg gives literally one of the worst performances I've ever seen in a movie. Think I'm exaggerating? Go see the movie. Tell me I'm wrong. From his first line of dialogue, my jaw dropped and my eyes bugged out of my head, and amazingly enough, Wahlberg keeps at it the whole film. With his inexplicably sincere, naive, wide-eyed delivery of every single line of dialogue, Elliot never speaks in a way I've ever heard a human being speak. His inflection goes up at the end of every sentence, as if every statement is somewhere between him being confused and asking a question. When a scene comes along for him to talk down to Jess, there's virtually no difference, as that's how he's sounded the whole time. A friend of mine compared his acting style here to Dirk Digger's, and I can see the comparison, though I'd argue the latter was better. Deschanel is pretty awful and mannered herself, but she's not helped by dialogue that forces her to speak her feelings out loud (e.g.: "I am upset!" "I'm scared."). She seems to have been cast for her big, expressive eyes, and she uses them to great effect, since she doesn't appear to have been given much instruction on what to do with her character. What confuses me is that these are not bad actors; Deschanel is outright good, and Wahlberg has been excellent at least twice ("Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees"). I can only believe they were following specific orders and adhering to some sort of directorial vision Shyamalan had, because these aren't just lazy, generic performances; they're astounding in their overt suck.

But acting aside, what chiefly contributes to "The Happening's" failure is Shyamalan's least focused and least assured screenplay yet. The dialogue all grasps at significance but each cluster barely relates to the next; starting with Wahlberg's classroom lecture about the disappearance of the bees, it seems like Shyamalan scribbled down all the ideas flying through his genius head and made a character talk about it at some point during the movie. Merged with the storytelling conventions and metaphor/speechifying, it all almost plays like a parody of Shyamalan movie. Again, like "Signs," there's a troubled relationship repaired by a catastrophic event. Again, there's forced moments of levity that completely fall flat. Again, characters are giving little charming quirks that are meant to add resonance but just make you wonder where Shyamalan came up with this shit (e.g.: Elliot wears a prominently featured mood ring). But aside from flat-out not making sense at times (if the toxins are in the wind, where the hell is every continually running off to?), the movie's premise and overall threat undercuts potential scariness. The fact that victims only commit suicide and not homicide, if unsettling, sort of saps the whole affair of tension. We know Wahlberg and Deschanel are the leads and will make it, at least most of the way through, without offing themselves; And it's not really a terrifying prospect that the new minor characters they meet every few minutes might be affected by the signal, er, I mean, the happening.

It's also remarkable just how much noticeably unnecessary dialogue there is here. During a mass suicide scene, an observer says "Those people look like they're clawing at themselves." Um, kay. How bout show us? During a phone conversation with a harried daughter, a mother, while on the phone, says as an aside to the crowd around her, "She's so scared!" But the most egregious examples are Shyamalan's favorite indulgence: unnecessary exposition. Elliot and Alma run into a gardener along their way; I don't remember his name, but I just referred to him as "Exposition Man," since, aside from rambling incoherently about hot dogs, all he exists to do is to explain to everyone what plans are physiologically capable of doing and why everything in this movie is happening. As the icing on the cake, near the movie's end, a television pundit thoroughly and explicitly explains everything we've just seen to alleviate any sense of mystery or ambiguity. Bravo, M. Night.

Much has been made of "The Happening's" R-rating, and sorry to break it to those who had anticipated it as the film's raison d'atre, it's completely unnecessary. Every particularly bloody/gory moment could've cut away one second earlier, with little-to-no effect lost, and the movie would have been PG-13. There's extremely little, if anything, in this movie that's particularly shocking, and the rating to have been tossed in -- or mandated -- by the studio, strictly as a marketing ploy (and boy have they been marketing it) than as an artistic necessity. Oh, and that "fucked up shit" you came to see? Since it's almost entirely in the first 10 minutes, almost all of it's been shown, or at least glimpsed, in the trailers, and the minimal stuff that occurs after the opening sequence (a man being torn apart by lions at the zoo, a "Maximum Overdrive"-inspired suicide where a man lets a large lawn-mower run over him) is more stupid than scary. Shymalan even resorts to the infamous 'jump scare,' which he usually avoids, and the two instances he utilizes them are amongst the movie's shittiest.

It seems everyone has varying degrees of thought on Shyamalan's ouvre, with unanimous proclamation of "The Sixth Sense" as the best, and I'm more forgiving than most, it seems. I think "The Sixth Sense" is fantastic, "Unbreakable" is a bit of misunderstood brilliance, and "Signs," despite a silly ending, is incredibly well-made, emotionally resonant and extremely scary no matter how many times I watch it (and actually justifies its pro-Christian bent). "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" are where most agree the director went off the rails, and that's where it gets a bit murkier for me. I think "The Village" is a mess, with some awful performances (*cough* William Hurt *cough*), pacing issues, misguided twists, and a disappointing narrative, but it also has an excellent leading performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, and some interesting ideas that could have been something were something made of them. I don't quite understand its defenders, but there certainly are some positives there. "Lady in the Water" is obviously extremely silly, but I think if it were taken at face value for what it was -- a garish fairy tale -- audiences would've been more perceptive; personally, I think the movie kinda sorta works, if boasting some major issues. And, in my opinion, if it wasn't in the middle of such a silly/stupid/wacky movie, Giamatti's performance was of the sort that usually merits awards consideration. In terms of connections to his past films, "The Happening" attempts to take the "Signs" structure that the world loved (forced, constructed familial conflict rectified over the course of horrible world events) and fuse it with his metaphor-laden message and proselytizing that everyone hated when he did it in "The Village." Thankfully, like "Signs" and "Lady in the Water," there is no twist here, but you may wish there was, just so the proceedings would actually be leading to something rather than the filmmaker creatively throwing his hands in the air.

"The Happening" is ultimately too ambitious/interesting to dismiss outright, but that doesn't mean it's anything resembling being worth seeing. Upon leaving the theater, no one I spoke to could muster up something kind to say about the movie, and I was sure it would inspire unanimous vitriol, but there are a handful of positives on Rotten Tomatoes, and frankly, I don't get it. I can't imagine what about this movie someone might find redeeming; it's so misguided and inert every step of the way, past the opening ten minutes, I was mostly just shaking my head feeling bad for Shyamalan. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't worse-seeming as a movie due to his promise as a filmmaker; it's much more disappointing/sad to watch knowing it's probably a somewhat talented filmmaker's nail in the coffin (he was very smart to sign on for "Airbender" before Fox squeezes this one out into theaters). The film is often literally laughable (after an off-screen gunshot, Wahlberg utters a half-hearted "Oh, no."), but I couldn't bring myself to laugh. I was too upset. While, personally, I may like "Lady" and not outright hate "Village," I know that audiences generally disagreed, and people just will not stand for being burned three times in a row. This may be the last original work by Shyamalan we'll ever see, at least one backed by a substantial budget; even if he somehow bounces back quality-wise, audiences just won't go. At the end of the day, the man has got a keen directorial eye, and the best thing he could do at this point is direct someone else's screenplay. But if I had to guess, I'd say his ego and defense of his own brilliance will never allow that to happen; taking that into consideration, it's unavoidable to acknowledge what "The Happening" likely represents: his goodbye to prominent filmmaking.


Blogger cc said...

I've never really cared for any M. Night films. They always seem to force the point or message too much for my taste. I think that he tries so hard to send a message that he forgets that people go to the movies for escapism and to be entertained. Hopefully, with his next film (and there will be another), he'll remember that.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Girodet said...

Your review of Happening is the first that I could believe was honest and unbiased. I, like you, think Shyamalan is a talented director. I don’t get why his ego has caused him to be so hated. In my observance of Hollywood, almost all directors are megalomaniacs. Finally, someone gives Shyamalan credit for Unbreakable and I applaud your willingness to see Lady in the Water for what it was intended to be. Unbreakable is one of my top ten favorite movies. I also think Signs is a truly scary movie and I should be embarrassed to admit that I slept with the light on for two weeks after seeing it. All of this leads me to believe I may actually be disappointed with The Happening based on your review. However, that won’t prevent me from renting it!

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shyamalan is a hack, and has always been a hack. I didn't see much inspiration in The Sixth Sense and his films have all been extended rip-offs of various old Twilight Zone premises. I'm one of those who revel in his self-induced demise - an ego of his caliber deserves to crash and burn. Perhaps his next and last film should be about a deranged, talentless writer/director who exudes self-importance and tortures the planet with god-awful sucky films. Now THAT is truly scary.

Go away M. Night...we've had enough. You might have a couple of gimpses of promise but you're a hack if there ever was one. You and Ed Wood would have made great company.

2:25 PM  

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