The Happening

The Happening ★★

I don't like going into films prepared to fight their directors and screenwriters, as I feel many in the CinemaSins age tend to do with M. Night Shyamalan. A director who so often sets up tragic and wonderfully layered characters with genuine catharsis at the end of their arcs should not be mocked from the outset of a film just because "Robot Chicken" pointed out his fondness for plot twists. If you're watching a movie trying to outguess it at every turn, you're doing it wrong.

So I'm honestly bummed out to have such a cold reaction to "The Happening." But it's not for reasons that the plethora of YouTube "critics" have harped on time and time again. You know that the science behind the wind-carried toxins is a reach. You know that the dialogue is awkwardly stilted and verbose in that quirky Shyamalan way that, in this case, probably worked much better as a screenplay than in a visual format.

And you know that Mark Wahlberg blunders the lead role to an unspeakable level. To be clear, it's not due to hack-job criticism of him "talking funny," but rather a blatant mismatch of actor and material. Wahlberg is so used to playing it too cool for school in leading roles, I doubt Shyamalan's singular attempt to recreate an MST3K-style schlock disaster film was in the "Shooter" and "Lone Survivor" good-guy movie star's wheelhouse. That requires a certain level of self-awareness that I could see someone like a Michael Keaton (i.e. a comedian or character actor who isn't predisposed to be the "straight man") pulling off, but Wahlberg looks completely lost in every scene he's in. Zooey Deschanel doesn't fare much better (She is a very funny actress! Just not great at pulling off "super-serious in a knowingly funny way").

Some of the supporting actors are more in tune with the schlock mindset--Betty Buckley and Frank Collison ham it up while selling that these are mentally uneasy people. But I think the biggest drawback here is that SHYAMALAN isn't in tune with this. His signature long takes and still shots do set up some eerie images, but the sense of empathy on display in his best work is missing in action. Childishly confused civilians fit old-school disaster (hell, even Roland Emmerich) films better because there's never any doubt they're meant to be cartoon caricatures. With signs of Shyamalan's artistry and humanity still on display in "The Happening," (moments in the third act almost recall what worked so marvelously between the broken family members of "Signs") his choice to frame these events as pure idiocy comes off as disingenuous and honestly a bit condescending.

But it's important to understand the place Shyamalan was in his career when he made this. He received critical cold shoulders after making a daring expose of post-9/11 "bubble society" (You bet I'm talking about his underrated "The Village") and a similarly messy but mostly likable fairy tale with "Lady in the Water." His films, this included, were all marketed as the sort of twisted thriller audiences got in "The Sixth Sense," not realizing the little things like characters rooted in a hope for redemption were what added up to make that such a special film. Shyamalan was a director too far into the Hollywood system to look back, stuck trying to manufacture another blockbuster that could make AFI lists and late-night airings on AMC. The more he tried to experiment, the harsher the backlash--so here came his angry, violent apocalypse movie, harkening back to unambitious genre fare and quite literally turning a huge cast suicidal instead of taking more time to reflect on their lives.

That doesn't mean some appropriately "made-for-TV" lines don't get good belly-laughs, and there are some cleverly edited chills as well (be on the lookout for an early scene that strolls down a road in one take as suicides keep piling up--and as always, James Newton Howard is on point). But Shyamalan's genre trappings were never what made him such a knockout filmmaker. The heart and soul he gives his characters and locales help him to use genre framework to produce soul-crushing dramatic stakes. That doesn't often require--or even benefit much from--big-budget glossiness.

Fortunately, Shyamalan himself seems to have learned this lesson. He is now picking projects like the enjoyably Twin Peaks-lite "Wayward Pines," and "The Visit," whose small-scale quirkiness is matched by his trademark sincerity to absolutely stellar results. His career reinvention is a marvelous sight to behold.

Now let's stop making fun of "the trees," and for the love of God, stop making vlogs about how he ruined people's childhoods. Let this man make the movies he gives a damn about.