Happening, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Happening, The Poster

M. Night Shyamalan has always been something of an illusionist. Even at his best, he succeeds not because he's a masterful storyteller but because he's an expert at sleight-of-hand and pulling rabbits out of his hat. With The Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's smoke dissipated and his mirrors broke, and he hasn't repaired them in time for The Happening. In fact, this 2008 thriller eclipses The Lady in the Water in terms of ineptitude. It's borderline unwatchable and raises the question of whether anyone will be satisfied with what the director has translated from script to screen. This isn't a long movie - unlike many summertime would-be "big events," it clocks in well under two hours - but it serves as an endurance test.

The Happening has an apocalyptic premise. Some kind of mysterious neurotoxin has been released in New York's Central Park, causing people to become disoriented and suicidal. They eliminate themselves in interesting ways, involving implements as diverse as knitting needles and lawnmowers. The airborne killer soon spreads throughout Manhattan, then expands to Philadelphia and Boston, and all around the northeast. What is initially posited as a terrorist attack may in fact be something else. The story centers on four individuals - high school teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg); his emotionally distant wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel); his best friend, Julian (John Leguizamo); and Julian's young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They escape by train from Philadelphia just before the epidemic hits, but find themselves stranded in rural Eastern Pennsylvania , fleeing from the wind and hoping to find a place of shelter in which to weather the storm.

There are two elements a film like The Happening needs to succeed: a powerful sense of atmosphere and strong character development. When a film possesses a minimal plot, it needs something - anything - to capture the viewer's interest. It needs people with whom audience members can identify and about whom they can care, and it needs a sense of menace, a feeling that the threat is real and immediate. The Happening possesses neither. Faced with stilted dialogue that's a patchwork of howlingly bad lines and clich├ęs, there's little that leads Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel can do other than grit their teeth and soldier on. Neither gives a memorable performance, but the movie loses us long before their acting can be called into question.

Shyamalan likes to compare himself to Alfred Hitchcock (and The Happening includes nods to The Birds) but, even at his worst, the Master of Suspense understood the importance of atmosphere. Shyamalan, on the other hand, fails to grasp that his constant shots of trees and bushes swaying to the promptings of the wind do not invoke the sense of dread he's hoping for. In actuality, there are times when these repeated images verge on self-parody, and it doesn't help that characters start talking to the vegetation. Significant chunks of The Happening might have been unintentionally amusing if the end result wasn't so sad and dispiriting. It takes great skill as a director to make viewers believe the wind and plants are to be feared, and it's evident that Shyamalan has overreached himself by a stretch. Even the singing Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors was more ominous.

It's easy enough to see what Shyamalan is trying to do, but "trying" can be distanced by a chasm from "succeeding," as is the case here. Had The Happening worked, it might have been the kind of creepy story that gets under your skin, but the actual movie looks and feels like something made for almost no budget by a filmmaker with mediocre talent. There's no point to it, unless it's to trumpet a way-too-obvious and strident pro-environmentalist message. (One that makes The Day After Tomorrow seem subtle by comparison.) The Happening is a bore with none of the tension and suspense needed to keep us interested. Even simple scenes reek of contrivance. Everything in this movie is artificial - fake to a level beyond what even those with blockbuster-benumbed senses will endure. We don't believe in these people, their relationships, their circumstances, or even the things they say. Worse still, we don't care. It doesn't matter if they live or die, if there's a happy ending, or some kind of twist. The Happening is a movie to walk out of, sleep through, or - best of all - not to bother with.

Happening, The (United States, 2008)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-06-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1