Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Happening Isn't

M. Night Shyamalan’s career started off with great promise after the critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, drawing favorable comparisons to his own childhood idol, Steven Spielberg. He enticed audiences with his own distinct style and signature twist endings. Since then, Shyamalan’s films have become a string of box-office disappoinments, including The Village and the self-indulgent trainwreck Lady in the Water. The wheels finally flew off in 2008, when M. Night dropped The Happening on us.

The trailers leading up to the film’s release were promising, relying less on the charms of Marky Mark Wahlberg and more on its vaguely apocalyptic premise, foreboding music, and impactful visuals. It was an effective blend of cheap suspense tactics and it had me thinking that maybe Shyamalan would prove my negative opinion of him wrong. He didn’t.

Both written and directed by Shyamalan, The Happening follows Marky Mark and Zoe Deschanel as they escape to the Pennyslvania countryside with a rag-tag group of disaster-movie cliches. Cities in the northeast have been attacked by a mysterious neurotoxin, exposure to which causes disorientation, temporary paralysis, and finally, suicide. Luckily for everyone, Marky Mark’s character, Elliot, is a science teacher. With the help of a botanist he met along the way and a real estate agent who helps the group navigate the terrain, Elliot is able to solve the mystery of the neurotoxin: the plants are trying to kill them! The premise actually holds some good, old-fashioned paranoia that recalls Invasion of the Body-Snatchers or a good episode of the Twilight Zone, but Shyamalan’s characters are one-dimensional half-wits that undermine the whole thing. The dialogue is idiotic and hilariously over-the-top at times, so poor that the actors never stood a chance.

Mark Wahlberg can be great when he’s given good material, like Boogie Nights or The Departed, but The Happening plays up to all of his weaknesses and he turns in an unintentionally comedic performance here. Entirely unconvincing as the booksmart science nerd, he struggles with his awkward lines, acting perplexed and whining his way through the role. Indie darling Zoey Deschanel plays Alma Moore, Elliot’s estranged wife. The generic nature of the character robs her of her trademark quirkiness and wastes her talents. The lack of chemistry between the two never allows you to care about their relationship, which is one of the story’s central conflicts. The supporting actors seem to have been plucked from regional television commercials that couldn’t convince me to buy a bargain-priced mattress let alone that they were in any sort of mortal peril or had just lost everyone they loved in a horrible terrorist attack.

M. Night’s directorial skills have certainly deteriorated since his glory days. In addition to losing his ability to coax an actor into giving a good performance, he has seemingly lost his eye for film. The few scenes involving special effects were distracting in their campiness and the film just looks cheap, which is inexcusable considering its $57 million budget, making it not only "disaster" movie but an unmitigated disaster unto itself.

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