Monday, June 16, 2008

The Happening

It's a Mighty Wind that's Blowing, and it's Blowing You and Me

The premise for this latest film by M. Night Shyamalan was probably inspired by this mass-prank coordinated and executed in New York's Grand Central Station. To vid:

It's a chilling little conceit. And so simple. Suddenly a hub of activity comes to a dead, inexplicable stop. And for long moments, those left out of the freeze, are of several minds. Why is everybody stopping? Are they paralyzed? Why am I not stopping? Will I "stop" soon?

What's going on? What's happening?

And writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is adept at exploiting such a mood, and sometimes even seeing it through to a thought-provoking, even transcendant conclusion.

Not this time.

Here, the whole idea of the movie is just its entirely creepy opening sequences, then the movie meanders along with some vague characterizations and even vaguer stabs at explanations that come down to being as underwhelmingly non-committal as "Hey, shit happens." Hitchcock got away with "bird-shit happens" in "The Birds," but that was because he had some interesting character conflicts to resolve and to test. Here, the main focus of the film, the young troubled couple, Elliott and Alma, are as drab and dreamy as can be, and her problem--she's unable to emotionally commit--isn't enough to hang the whole movie on.

Mark Wahlberg can be terrific. I thought he was the best thing, along with Alec Baldwin, in the star-heavy Scorsese film "The Departed." Here, he plays a science teacher, who, when confronted with something outside his ken, is at a loss. He's a smarty-pants who suddenly has his intellect pulled out from under him, and even though he can accept a non-explanantion as theory, he doesn't quite believe, and keeps trying to depend on scientific inquiry as his security blanket. Wahlberg plays this by amping up the uncertainty, but he's always just a tad too strident. Zooey Deschanel is the perfect actress for this kind of movie--she starts with the whites showing all around her eyes, and when she begins to panic the eyes only get wider, which in itself is alarming. But unfortunately, in an uncertain situation (and an uncertain movie), you're looking for someone who can pull it together, and these two can't. Even when some kind of explanation starts to emerge from the murk, you don't really believe it, as if expecting something better to come along.

And it never does. An audience member might well identify with the Deschanel character--the movie doesn't seem to want to commit, either. And while the prospect of a modern American refugee situation amidst a crumbling infrastructure I find to be an interesting hook to hang a movie on (ala "War of the Worlds" or "I Am Legend"), the basic airiness behind this film saps it of any kind of urgency.

It's indicative of where the film is going (or not) that the title* gives you absolutely no idea what it's about, it is so generic and vacuous, and when the adjective "the" is the only thing giving it some dramatic weight or uniqueness...well, you hope the film will be a bit more clear. One might just as well have called this film "The Vagueness." Shyamalan clearly cares as little about the why and mechanics of his little crisis as he did about the aliens invading the world in "Signs." What he does care about doesn't sustain the movie.

But one must admit it's a great opening. You half-way expect a good time just from the title sequence with its powerful graphics and another terrific thumping score by James Newton Howard (Shyamalan's regular composer--Howard really does wonders with what the director gives him). But however good the music is, it can't cover up the murmurs of disappointment from the exiting audience.

If you're looking for plausability or even a good stab at coming to terms with the basic premise in the movie you're seeing, it's just not "Happening."

"The Happening" is a cable-watcher. And basic cable at that.

* I was hoping I wouldn't have to mention the hippy-dippy (emphasis on the "dippy") 1967 comedy starring George Maharis, Michael Parks and Faye Dunaway kidnapping Mafia don Anthony Quinn (or for that matter the 2005 film I'd never heard of), but then the theme song (sung by The Supremes) kept coming up in my head, and then it hit me. This song could fit the 2008 movie like a glove, probably because its equally vague.

Hey life look at me, I can see the reality
Cause when you shook me, took me out of my world
I woke up, suddenly I just woke up to the happening.

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.

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.

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.

I saw my dreams torn apart, when love walked away from my heart
And when you lose that precious love you need to guide you
Something happens inside you, the happening.

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

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

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.

I saw the light too late, when that fickle finger of fate
Yeah came and broke my pretty balloon
I woke up, suddenly I just woke up to the happening.

So sure, I felt secure, until love took a detour
Cause when you got a tender love you don't
Take care of, then you better beware of the happening.

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