What's 'Happening'? Not enough to truly scare

Review -- C-

June 13, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Plants go on the attack against humans who are so banal they might as well be vegetables. That's all that happens in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, a horror thriller starring Mark Wahlberg as a Philadelphia high school science teacher and Zooey Deschanel as his wife.

Shyamalan has said he wanted to create the best B-movie ever made, but it fails to be the best C movie of the month. (Stuck or Zohan are better C movies.) As the couple flee deep into the Pennsylvania countryside to escape a plague spread by airborne toxins, where are all the cheap thrills and artful dodges? Shyamalan cues up every catastrophe for our delectation, but he isn't enough of a sensuous tease to offer us memorable climaxes.

Like Spielberg's ultimately sentimental and sermonizing War of the Worlds, except much worse, this movie piles on statements about the fragility of families and the angst of contemporary life - when all we really want to know from Shyamalan is how plant-generated poisons "flip the switch" on the brain's self-preservation functions, which in this movie leads to self-destruction, not just reckless behavior.

It's halfway amusing that the big marital crisis the central couple faces comes from the wife's overly guilty conscience, but Deschanel's indelible offbeat beauty and Wahlberg's dry, amused delivery fail to bring any body or zip to their wispy shenanigans.

The irrepressible John Leguizamo as his fellow teacher and best friend serves only to force the hero and heroine closer together, as does this buddy-colleague's sad-eyed daughter, Ashlyn Sanchez. Even when supporting characters like these aren't dispensable, they're disposable.

Whenever we'd watch cheaper, zestier films of this ilk on Hollywood Boulevard, a screenwriter friend would respond to the arrival of each new personality with the urgent whisper, "Don't grow too fond of him." The only one in The Happening you have a chance of growing fond of is a long-faced nursery owner (Frank Collison), who resembles the rural eccentrics in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Collison rolls off facts about the secret lives of plants in down-to-earth but also wonder-struck tones and soars into the vapors with an unexpected riff about the bum rap that people give to hot dogs. But Shyamalan appears to be the worst judge of his own material. Rather than milk this good fellow for all he's worth about photosynthesis or sausages, the director deposits Wahlberg and Deschanel with a tiresome religious hermit who's been living off the grid. Betty Buckley plays her to the hilt, but the hilt is full of moss.

Oh, the movie is replete with warnings about the Earth's ecological system turning against humans and panicky humans turning against themselves. But Shyamalan no longer has his finger on the pulse. The Mist, even grimmer and more grueling, beat this movie's themes of paranoia and fatalism to the screen by six months.

All would be forgiven if Shyamalan had gifts for terror, horror or suspense instead of just a floating sort of eeriness. I was in the minority, but I thought The Sixth Sense was woefully overrated, and I even guessed the trick ending- was I the only one who wondered why Bruce Willis never locked eyes with anyone else on the screen?

Here the gap between the writer-director's ambition and his talent yawns as much as the audience does in a different way. He means to conjure tension as air seeps into a rip in a car's convertible roof, but the rhythm and imagery are so flat you just wait for the worst. The killing of likable sidekicks is so blunt, ugly and emotionally inadequate it stops the movie cold.

Shyamalan wants the rustling of wind through greenery to evoke the same shudders in The Happening that the gathering of birds did in Hitchcock's The Birds. Instead he's merely made a movie for the birds.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Watch a preview from The Happening at baltimoresun.com/happening

The Happening

(20th Century Fox) Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated R for violent and disturbing images. Time 90 minutes.

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