Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Happening

About a decade ago, the very term "horror movie" seemed to be synonymous with dead teenager yawnfests, substituting tits and blood for anything resembling creativity. Now don't get me wrong, I loved tits and blood as much if not more when I was fourteen than I do today, but it was all rather redundant until a wunderkind filmmaker named M. Night Shyamalan came along and made a fresh, exciting, rightfully Oscar-nominated ghost story called The Sixth Sense. He had a firm grasp of suspense, established the "rules" of his supernatural world with panache, and most notably milked some eerie, Oscar-caliber performances from the whole cast.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Happening isn't just bad, it's incompetent. Okay, sure, it's a step up from the surreally awful, brain-exploding clusterfuck that was Lady in the Water - making it the first Shyamalan movie that was better than the one before it - but then again Lady in the Water is arguably one of the 25 worst movies I've ever seen in my life, so if "Congratulations! You've made a movie that is NOT one of the 25 worst movies I've seen in my life!" was the praise M. Night wanted with The Happening, here it is. But it's unbelievable that this is the same dude who made The Sixth Sense - there's nothing resembling suspense or a "scare" to be found here outside of obnoxious soundtrack stingers that make you jump just because they're loud and discordant irrelevant of the supposedly "scary" image on the screen. There's no structure, resolution, or point to the narrative, and the acting, good lord the acting, I'll get back to that in just a second because it calls for its own paragraph.

And it's a shame because unlike Lady in the fucking Water, the story here is actually a good one, one of two good things in the movie. There's a wacky gas that might strike anywhere and anytime and in wide attack patterns that makes everyone it touches go crazy and kill themselves. Survivalists try to escape it. It seems like a solid premise that could result in some suspense, some intense scares, some gore, some character development on the run, all that business. And it delivers on basically none of that. The movie can't even seem to commit to whether or not it wants to be a slow-boil suspense piece or a gore-fest; perhaps it tries to straddle the line but it fails on both counts. However, most of the marketing seemed to focus on the R-rating, hyping that to high heaven. Including Shyamalan himself. So how was the "R-rated" gore? Weak as hell. There was about four kills in the movie I'd call novelty kills and every time it cut away too quick to really see anything interesting. And as a suspense movie it fails because you don't care about the characters enough to be in suspense for their lives. And that is largely because of...

The acting. I don't know what exactly happened here, but Mark Wahlberg, the man who arguably outperformed Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen two years ago in The Departed delivers here perhaps the worst performance I've seen from a leading actor in a theatrical release from a major studio in the last ten years. I won't say in any movie I've seen, because I've watched straight-to-DVD National Lampoon college "comedies," but in this movie, M. Night Shyamalan successfully directed Marky Mark to the point where he actually fails at the basic mechanics of acting. All his lines are delivered like he's delivering them for the first time to no one else, reading directly from a script that's hard to read. It's surreal to even watch - I think M. Night was maybe trying to make his performance seem eerie and detached, but all I see is an actor reading lines.

And his chemistry with the nearly-as-bad Zooey Deschanel, who is supposed to be playing his wife, is utterly, truly nonexistent. I wouldn't even buy them as people who just met during the plot of the movie, let alone as husband and wife. None of their dialogue together seems like they were delivering it to other actors. It seems like they were delivering it to tennis balls on sticks, imagining the others' dialogue, and the two halves of the footage were then spliced together in post. And every single other actor, from those with semi-major parts to those with one or two lines, is just as awful. With ONE exception (and the other of the two good things in the movie) - John Leguizamo actually seems like he's alive on screen and does a good job lending energy to his scenes. I don't know what it is about Leguizamo, but I've always liked the man who was Luigi Mario in EVERYTHING I've seen him in; from Empire to Mario Bros. to Romeo + Juliet to Land of the Dead to this disaster, he never fails to entertain me as a screen presence.

But by no stretch does it save this movie from the trash heap of cinematic oblivion. It's not scary, it's not suspenseful, it's not fun to watch, if there's a "message" it's a lame one. It's maybe worth Netflixing to gawk at the horror of the acting, but that's about all. M. Night's next movie is supposedly going to be a children's fantasy-adventure instead of horror. Let's hope that's the change needed to spark his filmmaking back to life, because the carte blanche of an R-rating sure as fuck wasn't it.

1 Star out of 5

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