I don’t want to say “The Happening” is a bad movie. Well, yes I do; in fact, consider it said. But it’s bad in more than just an everyday, sure-does-suck kind of way. Director M. Night Shyamalan’s last picture, “Lady in the Water,” based on a bedtime story that put everybody to sleep, was a bad movie plain and simple. “The Happening,” on the other hand — with its what-the-hell plot, lobotomized dialogue and consequent B-movie performances — is worse, in a way, because littered among its many baffling passages are brief, vivid demonstrations of what a skillful filmmaker Shyamalan can be. And has been. I’d say “will be again,” too, but that no longer seems such a sure thing.
The movie gets off to a good, creepy start on a sunny morning in New York’s Central Park: people strolling the lanes, wind rustling the trees. Suddenly, the strollers all come to a halt, rooted in place. A lone scream is heard in the distance, then, nearer by, a fearful voice: “Is that blood?” Then a woman sitting on a bench pulls out a little stick that’s knotted in her hair and jams it into her neck. What’s going on? Well, as one character says shortly thereafter, prefiguring the verbal fizz to come, “There seems to be some sort of event happening.”
Very soon it’s happening to the movie’s four main characters: a Philadelphia science teacher named Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), their math-teacher friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo all seem miscast, although in fairness, it’s hard to imagine any actors who wouldn’t feel stranded in the motivational morass of Shyamalan’s script. We’re given vague indications that Elliot and Alma have been squabbling, but this turns out to have no import for the story. Alma and Julian keep exchanging devious looks, as if they might be having an affair, but this eventually amounts to nothing also. And in what may be the movie’s most ridiculous plot thread — although that’s a large statement — Alma keeps getting unwanted calls on her cell phone from someone named Joey. “You have to stop calling me,” she hisses during one such intrusion, clearly ashamed and panicked. What’s going on? We find out when she finally decides to come clean with her husband. Joey, it seems, is one of Alma’s work colleagues. One night, she and Joey went out and had dessert together, and Alma never told Elliot. Again: She snuck off with this guy and they had dessert together. Did I mention that Elliot wears a mood ring?
As the mysterious suicide epidemic rages up and down the East Coast (but nowhere else, go figure), Elliot, Alma and little Jess flee for the Pennsylvania countryside, the destination of choice in most Shyamalan movies. There they spend much too much time trudging through otherwise-empty fields, as if they’d just wandered into an especially uneventful soccer game. The picture’s tedium builds up like silt. But then, usually when you least expect it, the director will suddenly unleash a jolt of startling imagery: bodies raining down out of buildings; corpses hanging like Spanish moss from the tree canopy over a lonely road. There’s also a scary encounter with a crazy old lady (Betty Buckley) in a remote farmhouse that suggests hair-raising possibilities for a better movie than this one.
And what’s been causing all the suicides? Global warming, of course. Yes, really! Well, sort of. There’s a lot of stuff about disappearing bees and angry plants and other such silliness, but in the end, Shyamalan reaches back into the mustiest recesses of the ’50s sci-fi tradition to bring forth an explainer: a doctor who earnestly informs us, “This was an act of nature we’ll never fully understand.” If I were the guy who made this movie, I would have thought that was hitting a little too close to home.
Check out Kurt Loder’s review of “The Incredible Hulk.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Happening.”
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