Shyamalanathon 2009: The Happening (2008)

This week I'm looking at the films of one of my favorite writer/directors, M. Night Shyamalan. So far I've reviewedThe Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water. This is the last film review I'll be posting; a wrap-up post of odds and ends will be posted tomorrow. Spoilers follow.

Quick synopsis: Some sort of airborne toxin is causing people to kill themselves. Most signs point to the plants being the culprits.

Something is just off about The Happening. I don't know what it is, but it is not an effective movie. It's not particularly scary. It's not particularly interesting. I don't really care about the characters. It's not even so bad it's funny. It's just bland. I was excited to rewatch The Happening to see if a second viewing would give me more perspective like rewatching The Village did, but it was just as lackluster as I remembered. Now it's time to speculate why.

Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) staring into the distance. Are they scared or just bored?

The biggest thing that makes this movie so disengaging is the characters. Shyamalan in his other films manages to quickly establish likable and interesting characters in the first few scenes. Something about the writing and the performances in this film didn't engage me, except two scenes where Mark Wahlberg gets to be funny by talking to a plant and later telling his wife about almost buying a superfluous bottle of cough syrup. But Zooey Deschanel is pretty dull. I'm not sure if I would have thought the same thing if a more present actress was in the role of Alma, but it seems like she doesn't have a lot to do. Her declaration that she can't express emotion is about as nuanced as Cameron Diaz's inability to cry in The Holiday, meaning it's not. These two are supposed to be married, so I feel like there should be a connection of some kind, but it doesn't show. Unbreakable was effective in portraying a marriage on the rocks because I felt like Bruce Willis and Robin Wright Penn had a comfortable chemistry. The Happening just doesn't have any character spark. What happened?

I think a big part of these dull characters has to do with a lack of room to develop scenes and moments. The beginning feels pretty rushed, at least in getting to know our main characters. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) fares better because we see him as a teacher, using his best "say hi to your mother for me" voice. But our introduction to Alma is through other people, specifically Elliot's BFF Julian (John Leguizamo) expressing concern about Alma's commitment to the marriage. Cut to her inability to press "ignore" as her phone vibrates from a call from some guy named Joey. Honestly, besides a few expository explanations for her behavior by herself, we don't really see her be anything except kind of dull, although cute in her halter top-only wardrobe. We don't see Elliot and Alma share any extended exchanges, and we certainly don't see a long take scene of them conversing that's so effective in other Shyamalan films. Were scenes cut out? Were the actors ill-equipped to handle the material? What happened?

This guy shot himself. That's kind of creepy I guess. Where's the hot dog guy? He's creepier than anything else in the movie.

It seems like the aim of the violence in The Happening is to be shocking, but my reaction to it ranges from vaguely fascinated to laughing out loud. Part of that has to do with the fact that most of the suicides are of characters we don't know. This is also known as Beginning Sequence of Saving Private Ryan Syndrome. You're not going to get any reaction out of me besides "Huh, his duodenum is hanging out of his abdomen" if you don't give me a reason to care. The violence later in Saving Private Ryan works because we've gotten to know these characters and care about their lives (which is why Band of Brothers is a more effective portrayal of the horrors of war since it spends more time with the characters, obvs). Same with The Happening. When Julian gets infected and kills himself, it's kind of disturbing; he was the only character I cared about in the first place. But watching some random guy make a lawn mower run over himself is suprisingly not that scary, but just silly. Maybe more mood music was needed--maybe even more blood--but it didn't do anything for me. What happened?

And finally, I find the threat not threatening. Plants rustle in the wind and people kill themselves. Plants blowing around is such a passive threat. Suicide is passive, too. I needed more of something to be freaked out. Whether that was a more psychological approach or a more aggressive symptom. Maybe if everyone acted like the crazy old lady who lives alone in stead of just giving up on life. The deaths were so quick and passively observed, they didn't affect me. I don't think that makes me a horrible person; I think it means The Happening didn't bring the scares when that seems to be its goal. What happened?

John Leguizamo, you still have my heart. Mark Wahlberg--sorry, your brother did way better in a Shyamalan movie.

Maybe I just can't figure out what the goal of the film was. Was it supposed to be straight up scary? Because someone feeding themselves to lions is kind of funny. So is it supposed to be funny? Because you're not really offering up very many moments that are funny. So is it supposed to be a character study? Because I don't care about these characters because they don't seem to care about each other even if they keep saying they do. Is it supposed to be an environmental message? Because the cause of "the event" isn't really clear. I'm at a loss. It's not a completely bad film, but it's not that good either. It's just blah.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, we found it laughably bad, but only in retrospect. During the movie all we could think is "what a great cast (I love Zooey) for such a crapfest movie"