The Happening

Scene: A man approaches a young couple and asks:

"You look like a happy couple. Are you?"

Woman: (smiling, nodding) "Yeah."

"So, uh, how do account for it?"

Woman: "Uhh.. .I'm very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say."
Man: "And I'm exactly the same way"

Annie Hall)

I've been thinking about this scene a lot lately. One of my favorite moments from one the great movies of all time. It speaks hilariously to a phenomenon which has surely only grown more widespread since Annie Hall's release in 1977: the sad, overwhelming stupification of the American masses. The Happening arrives on a mainstream American movie scene awash in a dead sea of mediocrity. Television shows and video games are the creative fodder for one in every three Hollywood hits, with the rest stemming from a soft but steady diet of sequels, prequels, and not-so-new stabs at old genres. Meanwhile, directors like M. Night Shamalan, claiming to be outsiders, sit idly by and bemoan "the death of the cinema." Positing itself as set apart from this tide of detritus, The Happening actually rests comfortably and depressingly within it, skimming the surface and settling in nicely with the rest of this summer's usual duds. The only thing distinguishing The Happening from the rest of the heap is that it also officially signals the end of one man's career.

Watching Shamalan's new film, I found myself scrutinizing all the things I ever liked about his movies in the first place, and discovered that very little holds up anymore. Right from the start, James Newton Howard's score, all angry violins and trumpet blasts, which to my ear used to evoke Bernard Herrmann, now just feels redundant and cheap. Before long, Shamalan's poking away at our fear of the unknown, another of his usual suspects. Then, as it always does, something "happens." Panic. Peoples staring at TVs. Staring at phones. Once more to the well.

Let me be absolutely clear: I fucking hate Mark Wahlberg. . so much. That being said, I have concluded with some disbelief that he has never been worse, nor has he ever had to play such an unlikeable loser of a character. John Leguizamo, playing his math teaching co-worker, honestly looks like the second coming of Olivier by comparison. His performance, the only one in the entire film which seems to express real, human emotion, is the Elmer's glue barely keeping the film from falling to the floor right from the start. But it doesn't last, which is to say (SPOILER alert, although they probably give it away in one of the trailers, anyway) the movie, like Leguizamo, dies in the first reel.

Zooey Deschanel, a reliable indie-flick face (and the bait that helped me get over Wahlberg when I heard about the casting) gets blindsided into playing Wahlberg's distant, immature and possibly unfaithful (who could blame her) idiot of a wife. Even the countless closeups of her gorgeous eyes can't save her from the vapidity of Shamalan's script. She gives a performance more awful and unfocused than I ever imagined she was capable of. And when the couples few moments of paper-thin, forced relationship drama unspool, they are laughable. Eventually, one must throw their hands up and realize that these are not even characters. They are caricatures of characters. Together, Wahlberg, Deschanel and a catatonic kid stowaway left over from Leguizamo's demise combine to form perhaps the most unappealing movie ensemble of this or any year.

By now you know the cockamamie nuts and bolts of the "terror"; it's being caused by plants. Maybe. At least that's what the hillbilly gardener they encounter on the road thinks, so the movie picks up and runs with it. The Happening's villain is the Earth. And while we all can surely grasp the concept of eco-terror and appreciate Shamalan's obvious point of view, a defensible concept does not a good film make. What I thought would turn out to be an extended poo-pooing of the disconectedness of people in the internet age instead becomes an incoherent mess of vague eco-babble designed to hammer home an idea that any sixth grader could already spew out verbatim: we poisoned the earth and now it's sad. Every point the The Happening attempts and fails to make has already been stated convincingly (and by better filmmakers) elsewhere.

In other words: The Happening is irredeemably bad. Shamalan writes dialog like an eighth grader, and the deaths he comes up with are equally childish and lame. Given his first chance to play with an R rating, Shamalan clearly has no idea what to do with it. He somehow finds a way to make even gratuitous death seem uninteresting, and panic seem fake. Cautionary tales tend to work best when the teller can actually explain why there is a need for caution. But Shamalan seems content simply to make up a silly story and try to force it down your throat as realistic and scary. It comes off as trite and funny instead, and (worst of all,) unentertaining. He loves to write dialog for newscasters, which is the cheapest method of exposition imaginable. And he directs actors like a retarded Roger Corman, which is to say, he doesn't. This is the worst kind of empty exploitation. When the movie arrives at one of it's final resting places (an old farm house with a strange inhabitant,) and the three refugees, having just pilgrimaged bedraggled through miles of rural Pennsylvania, still manage somehow to produce a change of clothes, I just felt insulted. Part of my brain would like to know what you were thinking, Night. But part of me just doesn't care.

With The Happening, Shamalan at last completes his epic nosedive from Time Magazine wunderkind to complete and total irrelevance. I have cautiously stood by his side since Unbreakable, but this movie alone deserves all the vitriol that has ever been spewed at him and more. Damn you, sir. I will no longer be your sole surviving apologist. You are challenging, no doubt, and that is good. But your challenges no longer deserve to be met. You insult me with your upper-class, holier-than-thou suburban bravado. I took those science classes, too, pal. We all did. Turns out I actually liked you better when you didn't have the balls to stick to your guns. Now instead of pulling the big punches, you pull none. Oh, except for the ending, which is more painfully gutless than anything that has come before it. Turns out the punches you throw are all whiffs. Maybe you should work in TV or something.

The only thing I can remotely connect with in this film is the hopeless, apocalyptic feel it manages to convey. That something horrible is approaching. That humanity has doomed itself. This is another in a growing list of films which plumbs this milleau (see also: Encounters at the End of the World,) and Night's version is surely horrifying and effective, but perhaps for reasons that he did not intend. For only the emptiest heads could be convinced by this cheap, phony stab at an Inconvenient Terror. Only people as dim and hopeless as his cast of characters could manage to see eye to eye with this story and it's hokey, spineless methods. Is Night awkwardly pandering to these fools, who (perhaps not coincidentally) still go to see his films? Or, more likely, is he revealing himself as one of them?

Even humanity's worst moments of helplessness and failure bring with them a faint glimmer of newness, and of queasy new beginnings ahead. But in the end, all Shamalan's yarn leaves us with is the same dead souls inhabiting the same dead world, the same newscasters squawking on the idiot box, the same trees, the same grass. Our resilience is false, he says. We are doomed. I'm not ready to buy into that just yet, but for everyone who is, The Happening is just for you. Have fun awaiting your inevitable demise. In the meantime, M. Night Shamalan will surely dump a few more films of homespun, hopeless (and pointless) advice into theaters for your enjoyment.

No comments: