Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Review: The Happening (2008)

The Happening
91 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Critics were wrong on Speed Racer, wrong on Wanted, wrong on Hancock. What about one of the alleged super-turds of the summer? Well... they aren't completely wrong, but there is hope. First of all, two very important things about The Happening...

1) It's obvious that M. Night Shyamalan had absolutely no interest in making an R-rated film. Despite my amusement about Fox's marketing campaign, and the extra interest that said rating probably garnered, this is easily one of the softest R-rated movies I have ever seen. No sex or nudity, no hard profanity that I can recall, and very little graphic violence. The television edit of this film will be maybe five-seconds shorter. M Night's previous films had a realistic, clinical take on the violence that made it more disturbing than the usual splatter. There are a couple scenes that capture that 'son of two doctors' visual (for example, a close up of a realistically broken body that has just fallen off a building), but most of the content is shot from far away and cuts away far sooner than you'd expect. My guess is that the subject matter itself guaranteed that the film would garner an R-rating, and that Fox asked Shyamalan to toss in a little gore for gore's sake.

2) Mark Walhburg should never, ever appear in a mainstream tent pole movie that requires him to play an everyman and someone of great intelligence. He couldn't do it in Planet Of The Apes, and he's quite terrible here. He's perhaps the least convincing onscreen educator in the history of celluloid. I've always preferred his brother Donnie, and even he would have been more convincing as a blue-collar science teacher. The film is plenty flawed aside from him, but his stunningly awful performance is probably 60% of the reason the movie doesn't work as well as it should. The majority of the acting has an odd stilted, quasi-realistic quality, like a cross between super-realism and surreal 1950s horror acting. It doesn't always work, but it keeps you on edge in a way that conventional performances might not have.

Most of you know the general plot at this point and I won't spoil much for those that don't, but the first forty-five minutes of this eighty-five minute movie are surprisingly compelling. There are enough scary, nasty jolts and clever violence to keep you just on edge (I particularly like the 'recycling pistol'). Again, the acting is odd, and the plot choices are a little off (when a train stops suddenly mid-journey and forces everyone to de-board, only our hero asks the train operators just what is going on), but there is a palatable sense of menace and dread. I like how the news reports are realistically panicked and confused, often giving out false information and wild theorizing.

Random note 1 - As I was watching the movie, it occurred to me, with no small amusement, that two places likely not to be affected by the incidents would be Mel Gibson's farm from Signs and the colonial town from The Village. Random note 2 - If you're going to have characters using the word 'happening' in a dramatic fashion a good dozen or so times, don't call your movie The Happening. It's a big pet peeve of mine when characters shoe-horn the title of the movie into the narrative, and it 'happens' a whole bunch here (the oddly named James Bond movies, like Tomorrow Never Dies, The Living Daylights, or Die Another Day, do this every time).

Zooey Deschanel seems to be playing a realistically screwed up person, to the point where it's (realistically) off putting at times. Still, I like that it's all but stated that she had a very screwed up childhood (did she see dead people as a child?), but that childhood trauma is never spelled out or even stated. The rest of the cast does what they can, even when the plot makes them make boneheaded choices. For example, John Leguizamo eventually leaves his daughter in the care of Wahlburg and Deschanel in order to find his wife. But, really, considering the nature of the calamity, his wife is either completely healthy and completely able to save herself, or she's already dead and there's no hope. Under those circumstances, you stay with your kid so she doesn't either end up an orphan or die alone.

There are genuine Shyamalan touches, especially in the eccentricity of the characters. The older lady that figures into the third act (Betty Buckley) is inexplicably crazy, but yet a symbolic explanation for her character is undone by the plot. She just seems to be batty for no particular reason (Wahlburg does his worst acting in his scenes with Buckley). Deschanel is cooky too, as is the gardener who is rather plausibly offers an explanation for the carnage while obsessing about hot dogs. It's actually the occasionally quirky dialogue, rather than the rote violence, that makes this feel like a Shyamalan film. For the record, I adore how the romantic subplot, Deshanel's guilt over having an almost-date with an attractive coworker, is dealt with. Wahlburg's speech involving cough syrup, as well as a brief beat involving him getting relationship advice from two kids, is the highlight of the movie.

Despite my praise of the above, the entire last third of the movie really drags and the movie just sort of ends, halfheartedly, without a real climax. Granted, the end of the movie is rooted more in character drama than in the thriller staples, but you need something, anything, to get a rise out of the audience in the end. Of course, this is the big problem with the movie. Quirky acting, odd pacing, weird plot choices... all of that would be manageable save for a threat that, once revealed, really can't be dealt with in any cinematic fashion. Again, avoiding spoilers, but once you know what's going on, you basically wait for the problem to ride itself out. This may be realistic, but it's not entertaining.

I stand by what I wrote last over the last month or so. Even a bad Shyamalan movie is more interesting than the bland, try nothing, accomplish nothing confections that make up the majority of the suspense/horror/thriller genre. I can't quite recommend The Happening, but it has enough quirky and intense touches to absolutely recommend a rental (especially those using mail order services). Shyamalan still has to discipline himself, he still needs to learn how to end a movie that contains no twist (of his pictures, only Signs avoids a twist AND ends successfully). But The Happening is not a complete catastrophe and it has more to like than 90% of the horror films so far this year. That's not saying much, but it is saying something. How's this for a pull quote? - "M. Night Shyamalan: Scott Mendelson still hasn't given up on him."

Grade: C


Kyle Leaman said...

I'd have to agree mostly with your assesment. Oddly though, I think the fact that the first third or so of the film is engaging actually works against the film. The message and plot of this film is B-movie stuff, and it seems as though the first third of the film isn't aware of it. Most of the time Shyamalan is able to transcend his b-movie premises, but here he isn't. Because he fails to do that, the first third works against the film by coming off too serious and pretentious for me. How much more fun would this film have been, if he recognized the inherent B-movie'ness of it and went a Shaun of the Dead route or for more of a comedy route?

RP said...

Well, I linked back to this post from your recent post about Night, and you've convinced me to rent it. I agree...at least he tries.


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