REVIEW: The Happening [2008]

“Cheese and crackers”

Ah, M. Night Shyamalan. The man who was overrated until I saw the masterpiece that was The Village, followed up by the beautiful fairy-tale Lady in the Water, vaulting him into my must-see echelon, no matter what preconceptions I have based on trailers or word-of-mouth. Well, my blind faith has somewhat let me down in this instance. No, it wasn’t the left wing agenda that is subtly prevalent throughout, nor the blatant “news brief” used to shove said agenda down our throats at the end. What happened instead was really just disappointment. I saw The Happening as either being a darker version of the love stories he had told in the previous two films, or a return to the phenomenon of thrills territory with The Sixth Sense. Instead, I received a mediocre attempt at a straight-shot film, trying its hardest (and a bit too hard) to keep some of his trademark humor while beefing up the gore and blood to get his first R-rating. I should have seen the writing on the wall from the fact that the strong rating was used as a marketing push because, truthfully, it all kind of came across as forced. Not always, but much like the rest of the film, when we got something that worked on all cylinders, it most likely would be followed by an utter failure of tone, acting, set, or execution.

The premise is intriguing as hell—Mother Nature using its natural defense mechanisms to fight back against humanity. By releasing a neurotoxin, everything green has decided to show its true strength; earth will not rollover and watch itself get suffocated anymore. This synopsis alone shows the environmentalist bent being portrayed, but very unobtrusively. Sure the groundwork is there, ever prevalent, lurking below the surface, but credit Shyamalan for refusing to make it the centerpiece of the tale…until the end of course. I wish he would have trusted us as an audience a bit more in that regard. The visuals are handled with deft precision, the wind and flowing foliage is gorgeous to experience, yet completely frightening at the same time. The detail and fluidity of realism is a feat to behold, but once you realize the intent of that motion, you want to turn and run yourself. If nothing else, Shymalan is a definite master of mood and enveloping his audience into the world he creates. Whereas a film like Signs shows his manipulation too strongly, leading us by the hand, step by step, to the end, Night has definitely honed this skill by putting us into the world in order for ourselves to end up where he wants us, thinking we got there all on our own. This is what makes The Village resonate with me so much, he never tried to trick me, he just let me wander in and uncover the secrets. He does much the same here with our fears of terrorism and closed-minded views when it comes to the far-fetched (Mother Nature fighting? Yeah right). By showing how each character reacts to what is happening, we are allowed to pick the one we agree with and see how he/she will fare and find out what is really going on.

The problems come in with the uneven tempo and mood that’s laid out. This is a dark story of death and destruction, containing moments that are not for the faint of heart. Believe me, when you see our leads travel with a certain age demographic you will get lulled into the sense of security that, oh, now nothing will happen. I’ll just warn you that anything can and will occur, despite any preconceptions you may have. However, with that cynicism and unabashed freedom to carry the story to any end, Night decided he needed to temper it all with comedy and humor. While a little of this is a plus, he goes overboard here. Some moments are cringingly bad to watch and make you wonder how he didn’t cut the scene completely, or why no one recommended that he do so. Yes, there was the unintentional humor brought to the forefront by the crowd I saw the film with, but some of the stuff was just too over the top that it must have been done on purpose. I truly believed Shymalan told his actors to ham it up for some end game, but when nothing resulted, (no Haunted Honeymoon sequence when you find that all the craziness and camp was a result of the entire film being a radio show), I only had to blame the cast for its amateur sensibilities and the director for his inability to get the performances needed.

Before I go into detail, I just want to mention the one person who got it right. John Leguizamo is absolutely fantastic in a smaller role as a math teacher. He embodies the role and the responsibilities his family life carries with it to perfection. Start to finish, not a single false moment. This cannot be said for anyone else. Zooey Deschanel has instances of brilliance, but also way too many of her manic jittering and wide-eyed stares that work so well as the drugged out hippie in “Weeds” but not so much as the emotionally troubled wife here. Mark Wahlberg is half great, half bad. When he has his moments of levity, pretending to be that cool teacher goofing around while subliminally still teaching something, he reminded me of his delivery from I Heart Huckabees. Where he fails is when he attempts to be a normal suburbanite. Truthfully, he can’t pull it off. He is from the streets, his speech patterns are from the streets, and he should not be made to pretend to be Johnny Do Good. All he does is inflect words that make him appear to have a weird staccato and horrible grasp on the English language—it’s too forced.

So, while visually stunning and intriguingly plotted, the end result becomes too campy to hold the weight that Night sets out to have. The scientific stuff is interesting and handled well enough to be believable, never taking us out of the world we are transported too. I also loved the “Twilight Zone”-esque conclusion, showing the bigger picture of what really is happening. Whether it was just cast wrong or played wrong, the acting is too stilted at times, the script uneven and laughable—Do you like hotdogs?—and in the end disjointed enough to sometimes lose your footing on what is happening. Humor is necessary to allow the darkness to breathe, not to take us off course only to steer back sharply. There are the makings of a very good film here, I just think maybe a bit more work was needed to excise it from what finally hit the screen.

The Happening 5/10 | ★ ★


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