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Monday, June 16, 2008

Happening (The)

By now everyone knows that I’m basically older than dirt, and I’m not going to apologize for it anymore, so screw it. When I think of The Happening it’s not about this preposterous new movie from M. Night Shyamalan, but about Diana Ross and The Supremes’ groovy hit 45 (yes, a real, honest-to-God vinyl record!) from 1967, which, ironically, was the opening theme to another movie also called The Happening. That one starred a bunch of people no one under forty has probably ever heard of ~ Anthony Quinn, Milton Berle, George Maharis and Faye Dunaway. Well, okay, they may know Faye Dunaway because she’s become a camp idol for screaming “NO WIRE COAT HANGERS, EVER!” in Mommie Dearest but that’s about it.

Anyway, as I was saying, I’ve always thought of The Supremes’ song when I’ve heard about The Happening, and I was a little disappointed that the new movie starring Mark Walhberg (We Own the Night) didn’t even give it ten bars on a car radio in the background of a scene as an homage to us old farts who still have our memories and enough cash from our social security checks to make it into the cinema. In actuality, the song itself would have worked perfectly for this allegedly heart-pounding tale about something unknown suddenly and inexplicably causing entire populations in various areas of the Northeastern United States to lose their minds and kill themselves. It’s almost as if Shyamalan cribbed the lyrics of “The Happening” for some of his inspiration.

Hey life, look at me, I can see the re-al-it-y
Cause when you shook me, took me, out of my world
I woke up, suddenly I just woke up, to The Happening.

This first verse certainly sounds like the opening moments of the movie. Wahlberg, as high school science teacher Elliot Moore, is as bewildered as everyone else when his principal calls all of the school’s staff into the gym and announces that classes are being dismissed immediately because of what could be a terrorist attack. With that, the panicked and confused students and teachers dissipate like cockroaches when the lights come on at 3:00 am (Hey, I lived in New York, I know about these things).

Elliot, together with his pal and co-worker Julian (John Leguizamo; Paraiso Travel), make quick plans to gather their wives and Julian’s daughter and then take off by train to the country as soon as they can, hoping that by escaping to Northern Pennsylvania they will avoid whatever the toxins are that seem to be affecting people. Unfortunately, this stirs up a controversial memory by Julian about Elliot’s wedding day that only highlights the tensions that exist at his home.

When you find that you left the future behind
Cause when you got a tender love you don’t
Take care of, then you better beware of,
The Happening.

Alma (Zooey Deschanel; Bridge to Terabithia), Elliot’s wife, is rightfully nervous about what she’s seen on television, but she is also reticent to join Julian on the train, especially when she realizes that Elliot has discussed their marital problems with Julian. She boards alone, and sits in another section of the train, leaving the two men to care for Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez; Kill Your Darlings) and worry about Julian’s wife, who chose not to join them, but to go by bus to Princeton in search of other relatives. Obviously, this is just an easy ploy so Shyamalan wouldn’t have to pay one more actress because it isn’t any spoiler to report that Mrs. Julian No-Last-Name ain’t ever going to make it back from Princeton.
One day you’re up, then you turn around
You find your world is tumbling down
It happened to me, and it can happen to you.

After just a brief interlude on the train everyone is forced to disembark in the middle of what is essentially nowhere after the engineer, conductor, and porters meet and report that they have lost contact with everybody ~ ahead and behind them. Dum, de, dum, dum. Queue the spooky music.

I was sure, I felt secure, until love took a detour
Yeah, riding high on top of the world
It happened, suddenly it just happened,
The Happening.

So high drama follows, natch, as everybody fights over what to do and the usual “whose is bigger” testosterone rage ensues because it just has to since there are men involved, and I found myself sitting in the theater thinking, “Okay, so here comes the invisible creeping crud, and instead of getting the frigging hell out of there the men folk are going to stand around all day screaming at each other to prove who’s the top cock and who gets to be in charge!!!”, but eventually people figure out different ideas so we get to see groups split up so that some will get infected and go crazy because otherwise it would be really boring. I mean, let’s face it: 90% of this movie is just Marky Mark and crew running around the fields looking scared while wind machines off camera blow the leaves on the trees. If it wasn’t for the creepy music by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight) this could just as easily have looked like the opening moments of The Sound of Music with Walhberg starring as Maria Von Trapp.

Now I see life for what it is
It’s not all dreams,
it’s not all bliss
It happened to me, and it can happen to you!

In spite of the promised near-graphic gross-outs, there are never any actual Dawn of the Dead disgusting vomit-inducing shots, just cutaway-before-it gets-nasty type of suicide moments, so for those expecting a slasher extravaganza, this is going to be a big disappointment. Actually, for anybody expecting much of anything that is remotely frightening, clever, or that holds an ounce of the talent that Shyamalan showed in his early days with The Sixth Sense, it’s just not here. While he proudly splashes his credit across the screen “Produced, Directed and Written by M. Night Shyamalan” it may be time for Night to fall on his ego and let someone else infuse their independent input into his process to make sure he delivers the best film possible. He certainly wasn’t “free to be” during his earliest days and those were his most successful. His last few movies have gotten progressively weaker and less creative until, finally, with The Happening, he has reached a place where his premise is so lame it makes it hard to discuss without giggling. I found myself sitting in the movie and wondering “How in the world did Mark Wahlberg go from The Departed and Invincible to carrying on a conversation with a houseplant?” Did he even read the script before he signed on to this thing or did Night just dazzle him with a sales pitch that never came to fruition? I found myself embarrassed for the poor schmuck as I sat there in the darkened theater, and that very seldom happens. I think the last time was when I saw Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, singing “I Talk to the Trees.” Hmmm. Talking to trees, talking to houseplants. I think maybe we’re on to something!

Ooo, and then it happened
Ooo, and then it happened
Ooo, and then it happened
Ooo, and then it happened.

The signature to Shyamalan’s success has been in his twist endings. He did it best in his first, The Sixth Sense, and nearly as well with The Village, but the shocker here is the total lack of a surprise. He reveals what’s actually killing everybody right near the beginning of the movie, so the ad campaign that makes it look like the film is a big mystery is just a crock. If only it was. Since we know what’s going on up front the element of anxiety and the unknown is stripped away. Then the killing is simply a matter of formula. What “names” in the cast will get offed and how quickly? Will the Moores both survive to rekindle their broken love or will Julian be getting a little Moore or less from the one who makes it to the end? Will Julian become fried? Does anyone care?

Is it real, is it fake, is this game of life a mistake
Cause when I lost the love I thought was mine
For certain, suddenly I started hurting,
The Happening.

After revisiting the lyrics from the old Supremes’ song, I think Shyamalan missed a great opportunity by not including it in the movie. It practically reads like the script but without the knife-wielding crazies, which is just a tiny change in the bigger picture. Heck, he probably could have gotten Diana Ross herself to sing it in the movie with the original Supremes doing back-up, which would have gotten him a song and a couple of knife-wielding crazies thrown in for good measure. You just know those back-up gals would be more than happy to take the knives Diana used to stab them in the back years ago, and now take good aim with those same daggers and fling ‘em right back her way. And that would be a Happening worth watching!

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