The Happening

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Beware the trees, the bushes, the blades of grass and the shrubbery for they shall wreak a terrible vengeance. Beware the wind, too, for it shall be the vegetation’s chariot and shall spread death all over the land.

The Happening features many lingering shots of trees and bushes. It also has a high frequency of scenes where people run from gusts of wind. Thrilling the film isn’t, but silly it is.

In his latest film, M. Night Shyamalan tries to tap into our fear of an ecological disaster, but his movie is so ham-fisted, so badly written and so woodenly acted that it ends up being an unintentional comedic tour de force. M. Night has really outdone himself this time.

The film begins with a couple of women in Central Park. They talk amongst themselves and then suddenly everyone around them stops. Then one of the women begins to look confused. ‘What page was I on?’ she says like she’s summoning the spirit of Captain Kirk. And then she stabs herself in the neck. Hmm. Awful acting and ‘ominous’ shots of trees as someone…absolutely…must…kill…themselves. Yeah, it’s not scary.

Immediately following this scene is a sequence where people throw themselves off a building. We start with a bunch of construction workers and then bodies begin to fall around them. It tries its best to tie itself to the terror of 9/11 but the horror is constantly undermined by the ridiculous acting. The head construction guy, rather than go through any sort of disbelief, which I guess would be the normal reaction, seems to cry almost immediately. And then as he looks up and bodies rain on him, he says in hushed tones, ‘God in heaven.’ Who talks like that? Only people in Shyamalanland. For some reason he tries to make every piece of dialogue seem incredibly profound - instead it comes over as corny.

However, there are greater moments of silliness. One of the best features a man who lies down before a massive lawnmower and lets it run over him, splattering lots of blood all over a beautifully manicured lawn. Yeah, did no one think that this might look ridiculous? Oh no, not a giant lawnmower lumbering very slowly towards an incapacitated man! Such visions haunt my dreams. That and the thought of breaking my spine in a flower-watering incident and having malicious squirrels stuff nuts up my anus until I explode.

But even more sniggersome is the scene where a man gets his arm ripped off by a lion. Okay, so this has a more believable bend to it, as many a crazy bastard has tried to make ‘friends’ with the wild animals before. But here the horror is immediately diluted by the way the scene is filmed. Alright, so we have Mark Wahlberg talking to the young daughter of a friend of his and he does his best to cheer her up. He even succeeds. But then some stranger next to Markie Mark taps him on the shoulder and shows him a video on her iphone. We then see grisly footage of a lion ripping a man’s arm off. Yeah, don’t worry kid, everything will be alright. You’ll just either stab yourself in the head, javelin into a minefield, crucify yourself with a nail gun or rip your belly open and have vultures feast on your innards. Nothing bad is going to happen. Smile that smile again!

Another death scene that had me guffawing was the one where John Leguizamo dies. He’s trying to rescue his wife, and he drives off with some strangers in a Jeep, but then everyone succumbs to the toxins the plants have released. We see the Jeep stop and then it speeds towards a tree and people go flying through the windshield. However, Leguizamo survives the crash and slashes his wrists. Again, any potential horror is undermined by the way the crash is filmed. It’s speeded up! It looks like something out of The Cannonball Run. And because Leguizamo’s character is such an idiot, I found myself beaming when he cut through his cables.

However, I think the pièce de résistance comes near the end. Wahlberg and his idiot wife hide in the house of a mad old woman. She spouts nonsense and behaves irrationally and then she gets infected by the toxin. We then see her enter a trance and start circling the house from the outside. Okay, so this is the one unsettling moment in the film. It actually has a bit of tension. But then the woman appears at the window and headbutts it, a shard of glass sticking out of her eye. But this doesn’t kill her so she walks to the next window and headbutts that one. The wind then rushes into the room and Markie Mark has to run for his life. The scene, like most of the film, is insane, and unintentionally hilarious at the same time. Never mind Shyamalan’s heavy handed attempts to preach to us (our self destructive instincts are going to kill us and our planet!) – just watch the nonsense that is a mad old lady committing suicide by trying to destroy her glazing.

But just to show out of synch Shyamalan is with his audience, take the scenes where he tries to generate real laughs. There’s one scene where Wahlberg is in a room with a plant. He almost shits himself and then begins talking to it, saying that he only wants to use the toilet and that he’s trying to send out good vibes. He then touches it and realises that it’s plastic. I almost wanted to cry, so inane was the laboured attempt at humour and so amateurish the acting.

And Wahlberg is horribly miscast in this film. He’s meant to be a Science teacher. Fair enough, Wahlberg is okay when he’s cast properly (basically he has to either play a moron or a thug). But a Science teacher? Every time he talks scientifically he gazes into the distance, like someone on the far horizon is holding a massive idiot board. Either that or he’s trying to concentrate and he needs to somehow relax his facial muscles so that he can reach inside his mind, scratch his brain and remember his dialogue.

But then at other times he changes his inflections. Normal statements suddenly become questions. It’s like Shyamalan accidentally italicised his dialogue when he sent it to the printers.

However, Zooey Deschanel, who plays Wahlberg’s wife, turns in an even more embarrassing performance. Her character is a complete airhead and demands a horrid death – maybe she could take her mobile phone, connect it to a charger, stick it in her vagina and pee herself so that she dies of electrocution. But no, she bumbles her way through the film and gets through unscathed. She doesn’t even lose bladder control. And to add insult to injury, these horrifying events solidify their marriage. Once again traumatic events strengthen a rocky union. What a load of bollocks.

The end leaves the two main characters remarkably content. Never mind the fact that they saw many people commit suicide. Never mind the fact that one of their best friends slashed his wrists. Never mind the fact that two children they befriended got their heads blown off with a shotgun. No, that means nothing. These events made them grow as people. The Happening was a good thing.

But of course, this wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film if it didn’t have a sting in the tail. At the very, very end, after the crisis is over in America, France gets attacked. The film ends with a bunch of Frenchies about to kill themselves. Can we look forward to a sequel where men in striped shirts, riding bicycles with onions around their necks, ride in unison into the Seine? One can only hope.

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