Saturday, June 14, 2008

Review: "The Happening"

I was extremely comforted, though not necessarily surprised, to find out that M. Night Shyamalan's latest endeavor, "The Happening," is, indeed, a very successful film.

And I'm not the only one ( Haters to the left.

Anyway, during my columnist days, I wrote a trio of columns entitled "The Critics Suck Trilogy," and its main focus is the plight of M. Night Shyamalan. His plight is induced by a little something I like to call the 'M. Night Buzz,' a phenomenon that affects lots of movies--most notably those written, directed, and produced by Shyamalan himself. To be brief, the 'M. Night Buzz' is a buzz created by critics, wannabe film buffs, and an ignorati of entertainment pundits that successfully botches the outlook of a film by deciding what an audience member will think of a film before he or she even enters the theater. This creates a word-of-mouth bash-fest on the film in question, usually causing a box office fiasco, and, in M. Night's case, a career that has (wrongfully) become little more than a punchline.

And the buzz continues with "The Happening," a film that will make uninformed viewers grumble grumble because they weren't really paying attention to the important parts, though it is probably the most effortless, concise piece of writing in the Shyamalan arsenal. Consider the comic timing of an abandoned model home in rural Pennsylvania, complete with faux glasses of orange juice and plastic facades in the bookcases. Consider the nuance in the performances of Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Daschenal, the way they seem to flit past the obvious and interact so delicately with one another. And now, consider these soft delicacies intertwined with the sheer creativity of the way that M. Night frightens us: an airborne, unidentifiable "toxin" that causes its victims to become disoriented and then to commit suicide. "The Happening"is a terribly familiar kind of suspense tale, one that simply stews in its lack of finite explanation until it reaches an abrupt but stirring end.

The premise of the film is, by far, the simplest of all the M. Night premises. Unlike "Lady in the Water" or "Signs," there is no vast time line of events, no real knots to untangle on the way to the closing credits. Instead, "The Happening" begins in Central Park with a pandemic of stillness and strange suicides. Before we know it, construction workers are jumping from their platforms, and cops are shooting themselves in the streets. Mind you, none of this happens in pandemonium. It is all handled quite calmly. In fact, the entire movie uses such admirable restraint that it almost feels like a novel.

Wahlberg and Deschanel play Elliot and Alma Moore. Elliot is a schoolteacher, and Alma is his hesitant, guarded wife. As the case with all M. Night tales, "The Happening" involves a human tale beneath the darkness: insecurity of a delicate, undecided marriage. After the event in Central Park, the Moores, living in Philiadelphia, board a train to Harrisburg with family friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess. But once word gets out that Harrisburg might be hit, too, the conductors lose contact with their base, and the passengers are stranded to a small, rural town. From then on, the only goal is to escape the northeast, where the mysterious attacks seem to be confined. Elliot discusses with strangers the possibility that vegetation could be responsible for the attacks--that its only defense against endless human assault is the release of a deadly neurotoxin. Is this really what's happening? Nobody knows. I think that's the purpose behind the title. Sure, it seems a little contrived, but the uncertainty is severe. Anything more specific would pollute the film's ambiguous nature.

There will always be nay-sayers, and I will always be here to defy them. M. Night Shyamalan, buzz-ridden or not, continues to be one of the most daring and imaginative directors of our time. While his films may not resonate with everyone, one cannot deny that they are always unique, whimsical, and unparalleled. I look forward to his next achievement.

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