M. Night Shyamalan is probably the most hated brilliant filmmaker in Hollywood right now. I think this has to do not so much with his films, which are hardly dismissible even if they’re not one’s cup of tea, but with his perceived arrogance. I mean, I get it, it’s kind of obnoxious to hear a guy compare himself to all-time greats like Hitchcock, as Shyamalan did again recently when he evoked “The Birds” as well as Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to describe the constant sense of paranoia that filled “The Happening”.
Yet, personally, that doesn’t bother me, not when, as has been the case time and time again with Shyamalan, the work is actually great enough to justify such comparisons. Alas, “The Happening”, while not without qualities, doesn’t live up to expectations, at least not after this first viewing.
The movie does open promisingly, though. On a seemingly ordinary summer day in Central Park, all passers-by are suddenly struck by a mysterious ailment: disorientation, paralysis, suicidal instincts… In mere moments, the ground is covered with corpses and before long, the phenomenon spreads to the rest of New York, then all through the East Coast.
So far, so good. Like all post-9/11 disaster flicks, “The Happening” evokes the events of that fateful day, with panic overtaking people and everyone assuming that terrorists are behind the attacks. But right away, Shyamalan insinuates that the cause of these events is nature itself. What if our environment, in response to all the abuse perpetrated against it, decided to get rid of the nuisance that is humanity? What follows could be described as an ecological thriller but, fear not, there are no Steven Seagal at the end of “On Deadly Ground”-style message; the ramifications are implied rather than explicit.
As is always the case with Shyamalan, even though the stakes are monumental, the tone is intimist. The crisis is shown almost entirely from the point of view of Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who happen to be experiencing some marital difficulties when all hell breaks loose. As such, “The Happening” is as much about their attempts to reconnect as it is about the survival of mankind.
One thing which holds the film back from the heights reached before by Shyamalan is the casting of Marky Mark. He’s not a bad actor per se but, apart from his surprisingly fierce turn in “The Departed”, he generally comes off a bit bland and dim. That worked in “Boogie Nights”, as that was what the character of Dirk Diggler called for, but a Shyamalan protagonist needs to be more soulful. To be fair, Wahlberg does have his moments here, but his performance pales in comparison with those of Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”, Mel Gibson in “Signs”, Joaquin Phoenix in “The Village” and Paul Giamatti in “Lady in the Water”.
On the other hand, Zooey Deschanel is perfectly lovely and touching in the other lead, and she manages to elevate Wahlberg’s game in their key scenes together, so all’s not lost. John Leguizamo also fares well as a friend of the couple, as does little Ashlyn Sanchez as his daughter. I also liked all the wonderfully colourful supporting players (the hotdog-loving hippie, the batshit crazy old lady, etc.) and, in a more general way, the numerous instances of comic relief, which suggest that Shyamalan doesn’t take himself quite as seriously as his detractors believe.
The other reason why “The Happening” isn’t on the level of Shyamalan’s best is that it’s just not that scary or intense. Aside from the opening, there are a few other horrifying scenes, but none are as riveting as the invasion of the farmhouse in “Signs”, for instance. Still, even minor Shyamalan remains well worth seeing.
Day for Night (4/2/09)
To me, M. Night Shyamalan is part of a very small group of filmmakers whose movies I go back to over and over again. It’s this politique des auteurs thing, sure, and something about their voice that just speaks to me every time. Even when, as is the case here, they’re clearly not at the top of their game, directors like Shyamalan are more interesting to me than just about anybody else.
On this second viewing on DVD, now that I had no expectations anymore of this being another Shyamalan masterpiece, I got to enjoy it as what it is, for better or worse: a B-movie. It’s lean and mean, with a short 90 minute length and very straightforward storytelling punctuated by various little horrific outbursts… But it’s also kind of preposterous, the acting is uneven at best and the dialogue is often corny. Then again, these perceived flaws actually make it charming in a way. It’s like one of those flicks that you see as a child and, even though it’s nothing great, it manages to leave a strong impression on you because of some odd little touches, a somewhat offbeat tone, weird moments…
Of course, it’d be better if said quirks were part of a richer whole, but even at his worst, Shyamalan remains a distinctive filmmaker, using visuals, editing and music effectively even though the screenplay isn’t quite there. But again, once you’ve accepted that this is sort of a stupid ride, you can still get a kick out where it takes you.