The Happening

Published: .
Updated: .
David Swindle
Grade: D

It's every young director's dream to unleash a bold, original film that rocks the culture, securing their name, reputation, and ability to finance future projects. It's the ambition of every artist, whether their medium be film, music, literature, or paint.

You want to show the world what you can do, be embraced as a unique talent, earn the life of comfort and respect you deserve, and then gain the opportunity to make your art. Then you get to live happily ever after.

Or perhaps not. Early success does have its drawbacks.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's third feature "The Sixth Sense" became one of 1999's most successful films critically and commercially, earning over $600 million and multiple Oscar nominations. Shyamalan wasn't even 30 years old.

After "The Sixth Sense" came 2000's "Unbreakable," 2002's "Signs," 2004's "The Village," and 2006's "Lady in the Water." Or, in other words, an A-level film was followed by four C-level (or worse) pictures.

And now, alas, we can add a fifth with Shyamalan's "The Happening," advertised as the director's first foray into R-rated filmmaking.

The thriller depicts an America driven into a state of panic by a seemingly unexplainable phenomenon. Throughout the northeastern United States large groups of people are spontaneously committing suicide. It sweeps across groups of people like waves, provoking disturbing deaths without warning.

Like Shyamalan's previous film "Signs," which also dealt with a global event, "The Happening" focuses on one man, his friends, and his family. Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a high school science teacher in Philadelphia. Elliot approaches problems from a scientific perspective, isolating variables and considering different hypotheses. When people start dying Elliot joins his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel,) best friend and fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo,) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) in fleeing. Over the course of their escape, Elliot and company encounter various setbacks, dangers, companions and questions as they struggle to survive and piece together the cause of the threat.

"The Happening" has a great premise and seems quite promising for the first thirty minutes or so. It's also got top notch actors who bring to life likable, sympathetic characters. Wahlberg is his reliable self, proving yet again his acting and star potential. We know from "Boogie Nights," "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees," "Four Brothers," and "The Departed" in particular that he's got the goods. What's refreshing is that while he's known for edgier, more aggressive roles, in "The Happening" he plays a more gentle, almost family-friendly character. Leguizamo is also very effective, arguably the standout acting performance of the film. He plays a similarly mild-mannered character, also something of a departure from the tougher roles he's known for from such films as "Summer of Sam" and "Spun."

The problems ultimately come in what have sunk many a Shyamalan picture: clunky storytelling and awkward moments. OK, you've got some good characters and an interesting premise, but now what? About half way through the film just gradually starts to lose steam and get weird. The film pretty much "jumps the shark" officially when the party arrives at a house inhabited by a crazy lady.

Shyamalan also tends to have a problem effectively executing the seemingly most serious moments. Parts that should be disturbing tend to instead produce laughs. A sequence depicting a suicide involving a tiger cage at the zoo is almost reminiscent of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The film is filled with lines and strange sequences that produce reactions their creator surely could not have intended.

The fundamental problem with Shyamalan's work is fairly obvious and my prescription really isn't that different than that of other critics. He's certainly got great ideas, a talent for directing actors, and an effective visual sense. He's not a bad filmmaker by any means nor is he ever boring. He's also got a distinct, auteur quality to him - you know a Shyamalan movie's components and style.

Think of it as the reverse problem that writer-director Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy," "Dogma") possesses - a filmmaker who writes amazing scripts but struggles to direct effectively. Shyamalan's problem comes in his skill as a writer. If he could just get a strong screenwriter to work the kinks out of his scripts then he'd be back on track to be one of his generation's essential talents.