Wednesday, 9 July 2008

FILM: The Happening

Do you remember when M. Night Shyamalan used to make good films? Films with absorbing atmospherics propelled by intelligent plotting, genuine chills and those shock twists that quickly became his trademark. Even as those twists started to become forced (‘Signs’), and gimmicky (‘The Village’), and his ideas increasingly insular (the bizarre mermaid fantasy ‘Lady In The Water’), we would be sure to get touching central performances from the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti.

Not anymore, and with ‘The Happening’, it’s probably fare to say that he has lost it almost completely. A ludicrous ecological cautionary tale, it is embarrassingly conceived, poorly cast and a colossal misfire right from the get go. Though the idea of the world’s flora suddenly deciding on a mass culling of the human species is in itself timely and intriguing, Shyamalan doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The result is a weird chase movie which sees Mark Walhberg’s science teacher fleeing Pennsylvania to escape the trees of Central Park whose toxic farts are driving the entire population to commit suicide, thus preventing them from seeing any more Shyamalan films ever!

Oh no!

As the film goes on, its plotting proves to be as disoriented as its suicidal victims with Elliot (‘Marky Mark’), traipsing through the strikingly unspectacular Pennsylvanian countryside with his girlfriend, Alma (Deschanel), looking for a point while taking regular breaks to gaze fearfully at the rustling trees. But try as he might, Shyamalan just can’t make a breeze look scary and no amount of overly intense close-ups of Wahlberg earnestly emoting will help to convey that supposed fear.

Just why Shyamalan thought it suitable to put Wahlberg in the lead role is anybody’s guess. As films like ‘I Heart Huckabees’, ‘The Departed’ and ‘Four Brothers’ showed, Wahlberg is much more suited to roles that require his wit and rage. Whenever he tries his hand at compassion and understanding (like in the awful, awful ‘The Big Hit’), he comes across as curiously patronising, so when he is trying to reason with a demented Betty Buckley, the effect is humorously forced and condescending. More entertaining are the oddball characters that are plonked here and there along the story, but unfortunately, they don’t stick around long enough to make the film more bearable. Deschanel fares better, but then she’s just too cool to let the shit of any film come too close to her.

Shyamalan seems to have written ‘The Happening’ with Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ in mind. Needless to say, Shyamalan fails to inject the same sense of utter helplessness and confusion into his film and that’s probably the biggest disappointment here. In every single one of his prior films, Shyamalan could effectively cause one’s insides to knot up in fear and tension at the simplest of cues; ‘The Happening’ has barely enough suspense to fill a thirty-second Benadryl advert.

It is actually a real shame that Shyamalan’s ego has grown by such an extent that he thinks he can serve up such an extraordinarily lazy effort and then rely solely on his name to get people into cinemas. Where has the heart, the professionalism and intelligence of his films gone? There’s nothing rewarding here, no big pay-off at the end and the entire thing feels merely like an after thought. If trees are being cut down for the sake of such abysmal screenplays, no wonder they’re pissed off.
Jorge Costa