Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Happening

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Lequizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley
Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

“This better be as bad as everyone says it is.”

It’s a shame I found myself muttering those words as I entered the theater to watch M. Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned ecological thriller The Happening. That’s never the mindset anyone should be forced to approach a film with but unfortunately it’s been an unavoidable situation with this one. For the thrashing Shyamalan and his actors have taken over this I was hoping they were justified because I don’t like seeing anyone thrown under the bus for no reason.

Sometimes it’s bad come to a film late after everyone’s verdict has been handed out, but this might be one of those rare cases where it's a hidden benefit. Knowing every detail of the plot and being prepared for every aspect of the film that people had serious problems with I was able to just sit back and analyze. That’s exactly what I did, but much to my surprise, I also had a really good time. Sure, Shyamalan struggles with tone from time to time and he’s still a better director than writer, but this works for what it is.

So no, The Happening doesn’t even come close to being as bad as everyone’s made it out to be. In fact, taken as a good old-fashioned B-movie chiller, it more than holds its ground. It isn’t nearly as effective as The Sixth Sense (which is overrated) or Unbreakable (which isn’t) but it tops Signs and especially Lady In The Water. I guess you could say that puts it on par with The Village, which I actually enjoyed. But forget about all that. What I really want to know is how the public would react to this picture if Shyamalan’s name weren’t on it.
Elliot Moore (Mark Walhberg) is a Ned Flanders-like New York City high school science teacher who is forced to dismiss class upon hearing news that a deadly airborne toxin has somehow been released in the North East. Exposure to it results in a catatonic trance-like states immediately followed by strange (and at times far too creative) suicides. The opening minutes are clearly meant to shake us with 9/11 imagery, as citizens hurl themselves to their deaths out of high-rise buildings. Elliot and his distant wife Alma (a very wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel), join his co-worker Julian (John Leguizamo) and eight-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) in fleeing the city by train to Pennsylvania, where the pandemic has yet to hit. That relief doesn’t last long.

The immediate suspicion as to the cause of this disaster is bio-terrorism but the physical evidence soon shifts to something more environmental in nature. Frequent Shyamalan detractors may be relieved to discover there’s no ”big twist” in this one. Without giving too much away I’ll just say this catastrophe involves plants and the wind. In other words, Al Gore was right.

This film benefits heavily from being somewhat realistically grounded, at least as far as thrillers go. An airborne toxin being released actually isn’t far fetched at all and in the past it has actually happened (pardon the pun). Here, the results of it are obviously way exaggerated and at times presented preposterously but at least it’s more believable than a giant sea monster attacking the East Coast.

As for it looking silly that characters are running from something that isn’t there, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone when actors against a green screen run from fake looking CGI, so the way I see it, this is a step up. I found it refreshing and original to see characters running from something actually in nature for a change, and at least Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography makes it interesting to watch. Trust me, if there were actually a neurotoxin in the air you would haul ass also.

It’s a relief Shyamalan has a premise with some realism that hits close to home because his iffy writing does create a few problems. Like how he has Alma pause at the most inconvenient, life threatening time imaginable to discuss her potential extra-marital affair or how everyone seems a little to eager to watch and listen to graphic suicides on cell phones. In a stupid studio marketing campaign probably meant to further sabotage Shyamalan’s career, this movie has been ridiculously trumpeted all over trailers and commercials as “HIS FIRST R RATED FILM.”

If anything, the R rating is a distraction and the really graphic scenes don’t exactly mesh with the rest of the picture, particularly one involving a gruesome lion attack. That and a memorable lemon drink line delivered by Betty Buckley’s crazed survivalist were the only two moments that caused me to laugh aloud. And I’m convinced that latter outburst only occurred because of a great review I read beforehand mentioning it. Had the rating been PG-13 and not showed as much the film probably would have been more suspenseful and flowed better, but that’s my most serious quibble.
Since the studio justifiably wouldn’t let Shyamalan appear in his film this time around some think that Buckley, whose character doesn’t care about the world and complains the world “doesn’t care about me,” is a Shyamalan surrogate. Since he wasn’t allowed in the movie he squeezed his way in through Buckley. Good theory, except the problem is the world seems to actually care way too much about Shyamalan… for all the wrong reasons.

Plus, after checking the credits I saw he already cast himself as “Joey,” Alma’s secret boyfriend, despite never appearing in the film. I’ll take that any day over him having a huge supporting role as a character whose “words will change the world.” This film may as well be Citizen Kane compared to Lady In The Water.

Despite popular opinions to the contrary, Wahlberg and Deschanel give performances that are completely appropriate for the material for which they’ve been given. I’d even go further and say they rise a level above it. I thought it was great to see these two actors playing against type in roles we never get to see them in and Wahlberg is believable as a passive, geeky high school teacher (particularly in an excellent early scene). As usual, Deschanel brings her natural, down-to-Earth quirky charm to the role and I really thought the two actors shared surprisingly nice chemistry together as spouses.

Maybe I was just relieved to see Zooey in a role other than someone’s best friend or sister and finally be given the chance to headline a big studio film. At the very least, it's a huge departure from anything else she’s done and if another actress were playing Wahlberg’s wife I guarantee you I wouldn’t have cared as much about the character or the story. I’ve actually heard some people say the fallout from this will destroy her career, which is just complete nonsense. This was a necessary next step for her, regardless of its immediate consequences.

While I wouldn’t put either actor’s performance on their highlight reel, they did a good job and in no way deserve the bashing they’ve received. I commend both for making a risky choice and they’ll make it past this just fine.
The exciting and suspenseful third act of the picture really benefits from Blakely’s energetic performance and many moments between Wahlberg and Deschanel’s characters that work really well, particularly a beautiful scene in a field at the end. It’s obvious the movie has a message, but it doesn’t feel like a message movie so much as an intelligent parable. The film is a little like last year’s The Mist in that it points out how the human race can fail each other in the face of a legitimate catastrophe. In its best moments there are also echoes of Hitchcock’s The Birds, an obvious inspiration considering the film’s theme of nature turning on man.

This is one of Shyamalan’s more introspective, restrained efforts and James Newton Howard’s haunting score helps the creepy cause, even if the tone occasionally conflicts with it. The film doesn’t completely get to where Shyamalan wants it to, but how many of his movies actually do? It probably could have benefited from an outside, objective eye at the screenwriting stage but even if you view it as a misfire (which I don’t), it’s easily his most interesting one. What works is suspenseful and what doesn’t is hysterically entertaining. For anyone who hates it no explanation is necessary because there are some admittedly funny scenes, but I just took it for what it was and enjoyed myself.

Am I guilty of going in with lowered expectations? Maybe, but I like to think if I went in cold I’d have the same reaction. I’d also like to believe anyone who doesn’t surf the internet regularly or closely follow the writer/director’s career bumps would enjoy themselves, and its box office performance supports my theory. If The Happening does end up ruining M. Night Shyamalan’s career it's not because it’s a terrible film, but because he’s being graded on a harsher curve than everyone else.


JD said...

I had a a feeling you would like it. LOL.
It just never did anything for me.
My problem with it is that it is a lazy film. He never engages us wiith it.
Still, bravo for you for taking a stand on it.

Jon Medina: Illegitimate Son of Lester Bangs said...

Great review, Jeremy. Guess what? I liked it, too! Yay for us!