Sometimes I try to picture M. Night Shyamalan’s producers, standing around dumbfounded as he takes a good premise and meticulously f—s it up. Ever since he made The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been refining what was bad about that movie (the portentousness, the hollow profundity) and setting aside the good. Credit where credit is due, he got a good performance out of Bruce Willis once upon a time. But five movies later, anyone, everyone – his producers included – would have to conclude, reluctantly, that M. Night Shyamalan has lost it. The Happening is the most abysmal movie I’ve seen this year. And this is the year I saw Southland Tales.
Philadelphia high-school teacher Mark Wahlberg (don’t laugh) poses his students a question. The nation’s bees are disappearing – where’d they go? One student thinks it’s pollution, another figures someone might be poisoning the bees… But Mark keeps pushing. Finally, one student says, “It’s an act of nature, and we’ll never fully understand it.” And because he’s the first of many Exposition Fairies, Mark likes his answer. Sadly, class is interrupted at this point. People in New York are committing suicide en masse. The government has ordered everyone to stay in their homes and wait out the supposed “terrorist incident”. School’s out for shudders.
If it weren’t for the quality of the acting and the script, you’d be with this movie for the first twenty minutes. But the acting is bad. It is so bad that Mark Wahlberg’s performance is no better or worse than anyone else’s in The Happening. Those familiar with Wahlberg’s Action Man-like range of facial expressions might be surprised by such a remark. But trust me when I say that Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo and the little girl who plays John Leguizamo’s daughter and ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY who appears in this movie… is terrible. There’s a scene in the middle where Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic tree and you actually feel sorry for the plastic tree that its talent for acting is being wasted.
Shyamalan’s phobia about scale continues to run rampant (in a tightly confined space). No matter how big the potential for his premise might be (and there’s some weird shit Happening right across the East Coast in this movie) he steadfastly refuses to shoot any scene involving more than five people; framing everything humanly possible in close-up, abstaining from special effects, crowd scenes, car chases… basically anything beyond the technical range of your average wedding video. You can sum up Shyamalan’s entire approach from the scene in The Happening where Mark Wahlberg and assorted survivors gather round a radio (a f—ing RADIO?!) to listen to the world end.
What irks the most are the two or three things he gets right: John Leguizamo telling Zooey, “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it”; Zooey’s eyes; the distant scream in Central Park, and then later, outside the Louvre. Shyamalan is not a man without talent; he’s a man with a little talent and a great big f— off ego. If he could just learn to listen to someone else (his poor producers, perhaps); to take advice on which are the good ideas… he’d be ok.
What’s The Happening about? It’s an eco-thriller, but it wants to be more. There’s a little bit about the fragility of life in there, something about the denial of death in the Western world, but mostly – smugly – there’s M. Night Shyamalan. He doesn’t have a cameo in this one, but he’s all over it like a rash. He’s there in the sententious lines that don’t mean anything, in the protracted close-ups of Mark Wahlberg’s meaningless face… Once upon a time he made a good movie out of these quirks, but that was five movies back. The Happening is so bad not even bees want to go near it.