Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Happening (2008)

You can't glance sideways without finding someone extolling how horrible THE HAPPENING is on the Web. Cries of rage mix with clamoring to burn M. Night Shayamalan in effigy. Is the movie is that bad? Or is it that past efforts like THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE compel us to expect more from the heralded "New Master of Suspense"? The were a few (very few) people who defended it. Roger Ebert gave it 3-stars and admired its quiet, deliberate pacing. And some guy from a men's website called Mansized (?) called it a "minor classic" which may be a little much, but the site's called "Mansized" so, there you go.

I wouldn't call THE HAPPENING a horrible movie, but it is a bad movie, and it's a maddening movie, because Shayamalan is incapable of making a movie completely devoid of value (yeah, I liked LADY IN THE WATER) and it's those fleeting moments in this film that make you so frustrated, because the rest of the movie sits there like a rock.

In brief: An "event" begins early in the morning in Central Park. People space out in the middle of whatever they're doing, walking the dog, playing in the park, reading a book. Then, slowly and very deliberately, they find the easiest available method and kill themselves. Mass suicide, and over the course of the day it gradually expands to envelop much of the Northeast. What's happening? Why? The movie follows a high school teacher and his wife as they attempt to flee Pittsburgh and find a safe haven from the inexplicable threat.

The scenario, and the explanation behind it is a great hook for a story, and if you're one of the few people left unaware of the "secret" I won't ruin it for you here. Besides, Shayamalan ruins it within the first 15 minutes of the film, thanks to a screenplay that repeatedly beats you over the head with its message. In a bizarre turnaround from the usual "trick ending" that seems to have been a staple (for better or worse) of Shayamalan's previous work, the audience is instead bludgeoned with the explanation multiple times throughout the movie. Was the thought process that the explanation was so unbelievable the audience wouldn't buy into it until it was too late?

Much of the wonder and merit of his earlier films come from the quiet, intimate moments between characters. The relationships and motivations of the characters is what allows us to buy into whatever conceit Shayamalan is selling (i.e. ghosts, invincibility, aliens, etc) - the only reason SIGNS turned out as good as it did was for the wonderful character moments. My wife will still say that she leaves half-empty cups of water around the house because "they're contaminated." In THE HAPPENING we get none of that subtle magic, we're instead treated to bland, rote conversations and flabby exposition, which is weird when you consider the movie is less than 90 minutes.

Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot, the teacher on the run and he does the best he can saddled with inane dialog and wearing a worried, helpless look the entire time. I don't fault Wahlberg for this, anymore than I fault John Leguizamo, who plays Elliot's best friend, a fellow teacher who along with his eight year old daughter Jess is separated from his wife and is desperate to get to her. He's probably is the best thing in the movie, which is a shame since he's only in a handful of scenes. I think Zooey Deschanel is cute as a button, but lifeless in the role of Elliot's wife, a woman with trouble expressing her feelings. You know this becuase she says "You know I have trouble expressing my feelings." I'm not asking for Shakespeare here, but Shayamalan is capable of better than this.

Well, maybe the story and dialog aren't that great. At least we can fall back on some wonderful visuals, right? I mean, if nothing else we've seen countless evidence that the guy can frame a scene, can't he?


There ARE some truly eerie moments in THE HAPPENING. The opening scene that sets the stage for how the threat manifests itself is classic reminiscent of later Alfred Hitchcock. Early in the film is an uninterrupted take following a series of deaths tied to a pistol. Everyone is filmed from the knees down, and it's beautiful in how it leads you along an inevitable path from which you can't look away. The ending, although telegraphed from miles away is still effective because it's such an odd visual. And the pacing of the film, the constant quiet, is a nice contrast to what's usually out in the market as a "horror" film. Everything else? Shocking. Poor camera choices, weird framing that does nothing to expand or highlight the story, and a lack of any real menace or threat to make us care about the protagonists.

And I think that is what's making everyone so angry - the seeds of a disturbing film are all in place, there are small moments of beauty (e.g. somewhere someone already mentioned this, but there's an amazing moment with Leguizamo when he leaves his daughter with Wahlberg and snaps at Deschanel, "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it.") and small moments of menace, but the rest is so ineptly handled you want to kill someone because now this conceit is ruined for a better person to try.

I don't think I'll ever count M. Night Shayamalan out as a filmmaker, I just wish he would have taken the time and craft to make this the classic it should have been.

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