June 19, 2008

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The Happening (R)
M. Night Shyamalan brings another spooooky movie to the theaters — this one rated R, kids! — with The Happening, a movie which will be nearly impossible to talk about without spoiling at least a little of it so SPOILER ALERT for this whole review.

Don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending or what specifically “the happening” is. But in explaining how ridiculous it all is, a detail or two may slip out. Consider yourself warned.

Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia science teacher who finds himself summoned to class to an auditorium full of teachers where he learns that there is “an event” happening. The event? As we see in the film’s opening moments, it involves people in a New York City park suddenly becoming still and then confused and then quickly suicidal — offing themselves with whatever’s handy, like a particularly pointy hair accessory or by jumping off a building.

Terrorists, the TV says, terrorists have done this. So Elliot’s students are sent home and he and math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) make plans to meet up at the train station with their respective families to head to his mother’s house in rural Pennsylvania.

Why will they travel by train?

Let me stop you right there and say that such questions are only going to get in the way in this kind of movie. Start asking why people do the complicated thing when the easy thing would make more sense, why people assume something when another answer seems more likely, why they don’t take protective measures that would seem like the obvious move, and you’ll never get through this movie. The movie will move on to some other scene of ludicrousness — introducing one of a handful of “quirky” country folk, for example — and you’ll still be back there on “wouldn’t it make more sense to pack up the car?” Save yourself the agony.

So Elliot picks up Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who either is contemplating a divorce or dazedly suffering from having taken too much allergy medication or possibly both, and heads to the train station, where they meet up with Julian and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) but not his wife, let’s call her Mrs. Don’tGetTooAttached. She’s stuck somewhere and will take the next train, he tells us. Yes, of course, the next train.

As the train heads into the country, the reports of goings-on in the cities become more and more dire. The Happening has spread across the Northeast, it’s in Philadelphia, it’s broken in to your house, it’s thumbing through your magazines and drinking your best wine. Eventually, the train stops in the middle of nowhere and the crowd proceeds, in ever smaller groups, on foot, running from the Thing Which Shall Not Be Named.

If none of the characters ever spoke, this movie, at least the first 45 minutes or so, would be deliciously creepy. Panic in the cities, confusion, vulnerability — I’ll spare you the college psychology class read of this but it is undeniably more freaky now and, when used without overt sensationalism, can make for a real “of our times” thriller. The early trailers for The Happening were really able to get this across. With none of the stilted “are they joking or is this supposed to be actual speech?” dialogue to cause unintentional and poorly timed laughter, I think the movie could really work.

Of course, where there are actors there must be acting and that usually requires some kind of talking, which results in just the oddest recitation-of-software-installation-instrutions-type dialogue ever. (Though there is one particularly brilliant scene in which Wahlberg’s character has a very pleading and desperate — and one-sided — discussion with a possible evil-doer.)

And then there’s the Thing, which when you find out what it is seems 30 percent clever and 70 percent “that’s it?” It makes you start to miss the giant green wolves that ate the film critic in Shyamalan’s last movie. The Thing, the villainy that puts the “ing” in The Happening, is simply not developed enough, or at least not developed enough to scare. (Even now, a few days after having seen the movie, the “ing” still makes me giggle a bit.)

I really kind of like Shyamalan, if for no better reason than that he tries so hard and creates results that are so weird. I don’t recommend this movie — it’s not really worth your money — but I wouldn’t mind watching it again in some free, fast-forward-enabled situation. Sometimes, something this strange, you’ve just got to see to believe. C

Rated R for no particularly good reason that helps the film but technically for violent and disturbing images. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, The Happening is an hour and 31 minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox in wide release.