Last Updated: June 20, 2008By Tags:

The Happening [R] Grade: C
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. (BY KEVIN BOWEN) There’s a scene early in M. Night Shyamalan’s brilliantly bad, ingeniously insipid The Happening that will set the tone for the rest of the film. In a world of zombie-like mass suicides, standing in an eerie traffic jam, a dead-eyed police officer pulls his own gun and fires at his temple. He falls. The pistol skitters across the pavement. Slowly the camera follows. A second man walks slowly from a car, picks up the weapon and fires at his temple. His face is never seen, hanging somewhere above the screen, until it drops dead into the frame. Then the pistol skitters along the pavement and In terms of imagination, composition and execution, it signifies a gifted cinematic mind. Chilled, it’s a prolonged gasp of agony that re-tools Hollywood’s Dream Factory for macabre nightmares. Yet it also suggest a film in slow-motion suicide, marooned with impractical dialogue, indifferent acting, and a script one or two edits short of a complete idea. Few things more disappoint me to say. If there’s a last dog in the M. Night Shyamalan kennel, I might be it. I mean, does anyone else defend Lady in the Water. But with this tale of Mother Nature Strikes Back, I finally, mildly, and with true appreciation of its strengths, I must release a little venom into the air. The Happening successfully sticks images to our uneasy feeling of ecological peril. It does so by mining the horror film for all its supernatural currency. It offers no Frankenstein-like figure for the risks of fooling with Mother Nature. Shyamalan leaves nature’s dangerous mysteries to its own God-given green disguise. The death of civilization begins in grassy, bushy Central Park. Pedestrians stop walking. They babble. They walk backward demonically. Then they find the nearest gruesome way to kill themselves (Hey, anyone gotta power mower?). This pattern will repeat itself. Among these deaths, some are bone-chilling, but some will become clumsily funny. The film is inconsistent in that way. As the disease cleans out New York, we return to Shyamalan’s beloved Philadelphia, where a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) and his estranged wife (the bubble-eyed Zooey Deschanel, who should have been a silent movie star) join the train-bound evacuation of the city. Soon, they’re stranded with their young niece in a remote town, after the train loses contact with the world at large. Experts fear a terrorist attack. But naturally wisdom is only bestowed upon a balding crank with a thing for Ballpark Franks. This nursery manager, based on no apparent evidence, realizes that the plants are releasing venom into the air. Yes, the plants are killing us. Fearing for their own survival, they figure it’s us or them. I like people well enough. But I think I’m betting on the foliage. Shyamalan has a brilliant, Spielbergian eye for imbuing dread into the most mundane image. A slit in a fabric can seem like the end of the world. However, his greatest weakness is his Lucas-esque dialogue. For instance, when a fleeing soldier approaches a car window, does he babble or blurt in panic? No. He calmly, and ridiculously, introduces himself and describes his situation. Even worse, the film passes the plate around for generous helpings of painful, quasi-scientific exposition. The dialogue in early Shyamalan films got bailed out by quality actors. Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Sam Jackson set some Herculean record for line recovery. While Wahlberg brings a reassuring everyman presence, too much of the film slouches into type-written hell. If Shyamalan has no script doctor, he should hire one. If he has one, he should fire him. The Happening could switch places in time with Signs, with which it shares much (not to mention Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). The material feels potentially stronger, less goofy, less overbearing in its religious expression. It trades Signs monster-movie frights for a template of unsettling dread. Future generations not saddled with chronology might well find it the better view. Yet for us trapped in time, it too often feels like new paint on an old film. I love the climax, and until it runs into cliché, the second half of the film seems stronger than the very weak first. Sticking with it never quite rewards you, but it does provide some moments.