Hey, Hey, Hey! What’s ‘Happening?’

 M. Night Shyamalan, coming back from a critical and commercial pummeling for his fairy tale “Lady in the Water” that was nightmarish for all the wrong reasons, has attempted to trumpet his return to tension in a new film called…hmmm…what was that title again?

Perhaps I should look at some of the dialogue to help me remember:

  • “There is an event happening.”

  • “…whenever this is happening.”

  • “Whatever is happening is happening in smaller and smaller populations.”

  • “Why is this happening?”

  • “Nothing’s happening yet.”

  • “There’s something happening in a few states.”

Oh well, maybe it will come to me later.

Touting its R rating like a badge, the film promises to be a darker Night than we are accustomed to, but a few bloody deaths aside (most are shot at a distance), the proceedings are structurally similar to his 2002 outing “Signs.”

The film begins so promisingly creepy, with people committing random acts of suicide in rather horrific ways. Is it a terrorist attack using some strange nerve gas? Is it some cosmic thinning of the herd? Is it pissed-off plants? You won’t find the answers in this column (though I long to reveal it to save you the agony).

We are only informed of its broader effects though news reports, as we are sequestered with a small group of survivors – high school science teacher Elliott Moore (played by Mark Wahlberg); his estranged wife Alma (played by Zooey Descheanel), whose range spans from lost to befuddled (or, in a small triumph of her limited abilities – both); and Elliott’s fellow teach Julian (played by John Leguizamo) with his little girl in tow.

But even though they have names, walk, talk and furrow their brow, they are not characters. They are plot expositions and descriptions of characters. They are there to merely read the rather stoic, turgid prose penned by Shyamalan.

To wit, before Alma is handed a ticket for a train ride out of town, she proclaims “I’m going to get on the train.” And if you did not pick up that Julian was a math teacher, fear not, for he states “I’ll give them percentages, people are comforted by percentages,” and tries to divert everyone’s attention as the dead bodies start piling up by giving them equations to solve (given the choice, I say, “Death, where is thy sting?”).

Throughout their journey, the group meets up with various loonies reacting to impending doom with the poise and reserve of Chicken Little. One spoiler that I will provide (that is in no way consequential to the film’s machinations) is that Alma is repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from a male friend eager to fan the flames of a one-time lunch date. The voice on the other end of the phone? Director/writer/producer Shyamalan, possibly trying to relay stage directions to her — “Emote! Emote, dammit!”

Sadly, Deschanel never got the message.

But there is one particular scene in which Wahlberg attempts to earnestly converse with an inanimate object ( no, not Deschanel) that is the not only the film’s true low point, but a career one for all involved.

Shyamalan has been branded with many a moniker in his short ten years as a director – a one-trick pony, a misunderstood genius, an egoist of the highest order. It may be possible that is is guilty on all accounts. I believe it is long overdue that Shyamalan the director fire Shyamalan the writer and begin to focus his gifts. For he has an obvious affection and understanding of the language of film, and while his films (with the exception of “Lady in the Water”) can be slapped with countless derogatory adjectives, they cannot be faulted for their staging and cinematography.

But like his leaden-handed efforts such as “The Village,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” his showmanship gets crushed by woefully inept storytelling.

And for all its pretty pictures, “The Happening,” his attempt at an environmental thriller, is nothing more than an inconvenient goof.

~ by usesoapfilm on June 16, 2008.

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