Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Take Two: The Happening

by Patrick Bromley
It's just as bad as I remember. Maybe worse.

With M. Night Shyamalan back to being a major part of the pop culture conversation thanks to the success of Split (my feelings towards which aren't far off from Rob and Adam's), I've been thinking a lot about the director's work and what it means to me. As someone who would call himself a fan of Shyamalan's first few movies -- yes, even Signs and parts of The Village -- I'd argue that his career can be broken up into three movements: the skillful confidence of his early efforts, the flop sweat years of box office failure and constantly reacting to the previous bad movie by trying out a new kind of bad movie, and now the low-budget Blumhouse period, which has been met with a great deal of success both financially and with audience popularity. People really like M. Night Shyamalan again. It's been almost 15 years since we could say that.

Shyamalan made a number of bad movies during the flop sweat years, but none of them were really bad in the same way. After Earth is generic and impersonal big-budget filmmaking, while his adaptation of The Last Airbender is disastrously stiff, borderline incompetent big-budget filmmaking that suggests he'd never made a movie before. Of all his bad movies, I'm probably most partial to Lady in the Water and not because there's any single thing about it I actually like. He's really trying to do something different in that film, challenging both himself and his audience. I think he fails in every way, but I'd rather watch Shyamalan swing big and miss than what he does in, say, The Happening, a safe -- if still spectacularly terrible -- movie that's only distinction is that it's his first (and only) "rated R" effort. Outside of a little bit of extra self-inflicted violence, the film just finds Shyamalan doing his usual thing...and doing it very, very poorly.
I know that we have readers who love The Happening. It is not my intention to take that away from anyone. As entertainingly bad movies go, there is fun to be had here. It is a movie so poorly conceived on almost every imaginable level, so insanely misguided in its approach and, more often than not, so inept in its execution that I can very easily understand finding comfort in its awfulness. But there is no part of me that believes the theory that Shyamalan knew what he was doing -- that this is his tribute to bad B-movies and that he has pitched it thusly. I can buy the part about this being his B movie (in the way that the Shyamalan-produced Devil is), but like so much of his work he strangles it with pretense. I hate the term "elevated genre," by with The Happening Shyamalan is trying to do "elevated genre" and manages to fuck both the elevation and the genre up.

I still remember going to see the movie the weekend it opened in 2008 with Erika, JB and Jan. We were in a sparsely attended theater and more than willing to give The Happening a chance -- we were not there to make fun of it -- but pretty quickly it became clear what kind of movie it was and we found ourselves laughing at every terrible new line. No one else in the theater was laughing. I started to feel bad that we might be ruining the experience of everyone else, who appeared to be enjoying it on an unironic level. Truth be told, I hate inappropriate laughter at the movies, as it usually comes from an audience who have decided they are above what is on screen. It is not a practice in which I willfully partake. That said, The Happening wore me down. I didn't know how else to respond but to laugh, and the fact that we were among friends and all having the same reaction only made matters worse. I wasn't there to mess up anyone's good time, but how else am I supposed to respond when Shyamalan follows up a scene of graphic suicide with a character talking about how hot dogs are the perfect food?

There's a decent idea for a modern-day eco-horror movie at the center of The Happening: the trees and plants, tired of being trampled on by our stupid Uggs, fight back by releasing a toxin designed to wipe us out. Nature fights back! I'm on board. Unfortunately, Shyamalan either doesn't seem to know or care how the mechanics of horror movies work, so he establishes a premise but doesn't tell a story. There is no escalation to the situation he introduces. Things don't really get worse for our heroes. Something happens, and then it happens again and then it happens again. This is why the movie is called The Happening. It also doesn't understand how to dole out new information. There is a window of time in the first third of the movie in which we don't understand what is causing people to kill themselves. Then someone suggests it's the plants. Then the characters speculate that, yes, maybe it is the plants for a while. Then the big reveal is that it is HOLY FUCKING SHIT the plants. What a twist!
I am not suggesting that the movie need a twist. Part of what did M. Night Shyamalan in the first time around was his self-imposed need to end everything with a twist. But The Happening hardly understands dramatic structure. The movie works if we in the audience are misdirected to believe it's one thing, only to then be told "no, it's literally nature trying to kill us." The horror is in that realization. Instead, Shyamalan telegraphs everything early on and then makes a movie in which nature is the slasher, resulting in a sequence in which characters RUN FROM THE WIND. This is not how movies work. This is not how wind works. Don't worry; they succeed and outrun air. They don't want to kill themselves. Would that I could say the same.

A word about the whole "plants make us want to kill ourselves" premise. I'm not sure it works. It's just too passive. For it to be really scary, the people exposed to the toxin should immediately begin killing each other. I know this would be effective because I have seen The Crazies. The original and the remake! One setpiece, in which Shyamalan tracks the progress of a handgun as it is passed off from person to person shooting him/herself in the street, is the kind of thing I know he fell in love with from the writing stage through the final edit. It's photographed well because Shyamalan still knows how to put a sequence together, but the construction of it is self-conscious and the game of suicidal telephone becomes silly when it's meant to be, like, totally fucked up, you know dude? There is exactly one scene in the first few minutes of the movie in which the whole mass suicide thing is genuinely horrifying, and it's when the construction workers are all jumping off the top of a building en masse. Yes, it's ludicrous. Yes, it would be an unintentionally hilarious visual if it weren't for the reactions of the guys on the ground, who first think their friend has fallen and then can't understand what the fuck is happening when a few more people hit the ground. It's an honest moment, and the only time in the film in which a character's lack of understanding as to what is happening actually gives way to horror. Don't worry; because it's The Happening, it's ruined seconds later when the same actor gets a teary close up and cries "God in heaven..." and it all becomes funny because it is the worst. So much for bringing us to the brink of being scared.
Speaking of terrible acting, goddamnit does The Happening put most Hollywood movies to shame in this department. There are almost no words for how badly miscast Mark Wahlberg is in the lead. I'm not one of these assholes who suggests that it's impossible to buy him as a science teacher (especially if it was a science teacher that, I don't know, actively fought against teaching evolution under the direction of Peter Berg), but it is impossible to buy him as this science teacher. I'm not sure if it's just Shyamalan writing a garbage part for any actor or if he had so little faith in Wahlberg's ability to convincingly play the role, but the character's every line says something about "science." IT IS SO HORRIBLE AND FUNNY. I would quote them here, but it wouldn't do justice to Wahlberg's high-pitched, sing-song delivery that makes everything sound like he's not exactly sure he's pronouncing the words correctly. Zooey Deschanel, equally miscast as his wife, looks totally stranded. Her enormous eyes, once used to level Joseph Gordon Levitt and Buddy the Elf, here look into the camera like she wants to scream for help but can't because her sister Dr. Bones is being held captive right off screen and she doesn't want to get caught signaling us. Dummy up, New Girl.

Not helping matters is the fact that Shyamalan has asked cinematographer Tak Fujimoto to shoot much of the movie in closeups on actors' faces, a trick he borrows from Jonathan Demme (for whom Fujimoto has shot a number of movies). This results in a series of shots in which Mark Wahlberg looks confused even before people begin unexplainably killing themselves. He comes off really, really bad, but he's not alone. John Leguizamo is more convincing as a fat demon clown than he is here, forced to spout nonsense like "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it!" and reference the fact that he's a math teacher as often as possible, because Shyamalan can only conceive of writing these characters in relation to what they do for a job. I know he thinks he's being all deep and shit by having these two men who guide their lives by the principles of logic and reason (math and science!) being confronted by something which defies everything they know to be true, but none of that comes off. Instead it feels like the first script written by a high schooler who doesn't know how to give characters personality traits, only expository details. Betty Buckley, a talented actress, is a disaster as a kooky old lady named You Eyein' My Lemon Drink. She poses one of the only external conflicts in the movie -- you know, the thing The Happening needs more of in order to be at all interesting or suspenseful -- and then succumbs to the same dumb suicide as everyone else. Thank you, threat, for neutralizing yourself without the heroes having to do a single goddamn thing. THE HORROR!
I know exactly how you feel, boys
I recognize that there can be a certain joy in watching a bad movie. But the pleasures of "bad" classics like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Troll 2 or Miami Connection is that everyone is working really hard to make a good movie but it's just not within their means. The fun is in watching them try. In the case of The Happening, though, we know that everyone is capable of doing good work, which means that the enjoyment comes not from watching them try but in watching them fail. It's cinematic schadenfreude of the highest order and it's hard to feel good by the time the end credits come up. (See? Told you! It's the wind! BUT IN FRANCE) It's hard not to giggle at the screenplay, one of the worst ever written by a former Oscar nominee, or at every second that Mark Wahlberg is on screen, but seeing a group of people this talented eat it this hard isn't rewarding; it's disheartening.

Now if you need me I'll be at the zoo feeding myself to the lions. Save me some lemon drink.

24 comments:

  1. This movie is terrible, but that third Mark Wahlberg face makes my day.

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  2. "It makes you kill yourself, just when you thought there couldn't be any more evil that can be invented." Ha?

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  3. Michael GiammarinoJanuary 31, 2017 at 8:28 PM

    For me, The Village is the last of Night's "good" movies. That being said, I think Lady in the Water and The Happening are fun for what they are. I look at them like midnight movies. If Monstervision still aired on TNT, Lady in the Water and The Happening would undoubtedly wind up on 100% Weird after Joe Bob folds up his patio chair and reminds us "The drive-in will never die."

    I don't think The Happening is "bad" on purpose, but sometimes I wonder. On the making of featurette on the blu ray, we get to see Night shooting the "Old Man River" porch sequence. Night seems to be shooting the scene and editing in the camera, but he also seems to be shooting only first takes. Close up on Mark, he says his line, cut. Close up on a kid, say your line, cut. Close up on Zooey, she says her line, cut. Just a very strange way to go about shooting a scene.

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    1. "Old Man River." Oh brother. It's "Ol Black Water." My memory is shot. I blame the trees.

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    2. It's a toxin produced by the trees and foliage, spread by the wind.

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  4. This movie is in my TOP TEN OF ALL TIME but I did not like it the first time I saw it. I watched it a couple of years later and really saw it for what it was. It is not a horror movie. I feel like I've said this on here so many times but here it goes. The Bees is satire of disaster movies from 1978. It stars John Saxon and white specs they call killer bees. It's over the top and silly and I love it. They do business with a business called "Big Business". It's ridiculous. When Mark Wahlberg teaches his class(which is absolutely hilarious), he talks about "the bees". He goes on about how some things just can't be explained. He's a fucking science teacher! Some of the music from The Happening is from The Bees. This is not a coincidence. Mark Wahlberg talks to plants, bodies fall out of the sky(hysterical) and the wind did it. Calling it bad on purpose really cheapens it. You walk a fine line with this kind of movie but he pulled if off so well that no one got it. So when M. Night said that he was trying to make a B movie, he was just lying? Just because the actors don't know what movie they are in, doesn't mean that wasn't his purpose. Is everything done on Starship Troopers on purpose? Why does Verhoeven get the benefit of the doubt and not Shyamalan? You know who would make a great science teacher...Mark Wahlberg! He gets crapped on for trying different things instead of the same old bullshit everyone else does. There have been twists in movies since there were movies. Why can't the whole movie be a twist? You said when you saw it for the first time you were laughing at it. Why is that a bad thing? What difference does it make how something entertains you? There are plenty of movies that everyone loves that has questionable to terrible acting in it. To me, it doesn't matter if he did it on purpose. But to say there is no way he did leaves me dumbfounded. In the end, it doesn't matter. I don't blame you for hating it. We all have movies we love that other people think are terrible. Right now, history is on your side. We'll just have to see what happens...

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    1. Music from The Bees is in The Happening?

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    2. I got so much enjoyment from The Happening I can't possibly hate it. I'm on your side with this. It'd be like hating a puppy that kept looking at you with a confused crinkly Wahlberg forehead.

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    3. I agree with the point you're making, but there is one thing I must take issue with. Mark Wahlberg would make a great science teacher? Shit, do I have to say more? Sorry, I am nitpicking, but as someone who studied and works in the "Sciences", it's quite laughable.

      Also, I never wanted to see this movie (and Patrick kind of confirmed it with his nice review), but you have given me second thoughts. Maybe I'll check it out.

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    4. I promise I was not trying to attack or undermine your enjoyment of the movie. I know you love it and had you in mind as I wrote it. I think we just read the movie very, very differently. When Shyamalan says he was trying to make a "B" movie, I believe he means something smaller, higher concept, more sensationalistic. I do not believe he meant deliberately bad. And the reason Verhoeven gets the benefit of the doubt is because he has spent an entire career being subversive and funny and because there are context clues in Starship Troopers that tell us what he is doing. Shyamalan's entire career is built on earnestness. I think The Happening reads as earnest, and on that level I think it fails. But I also completely understand why anyone would enjoy watching it, because it is very entertaining in its badness.

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    5. I know you weren't trying to undermine my enjoyment, I was just offering an alternative take on it. I see it one way and you see it the other. That's ok. I just wanted to give other people who hadn't seen it or had that didn't enjoy it the first time another reason to give it a shot. I attempted to say it without coming off like an asshole. Like I said, there are plenty of movies we both like that others would think we are crazy for doing so. I also don't think it's trying to be bad. It's trying to be silly. If that's not your thing then it won't appeal to you. Have you seen The Bees? You didn't mention if you had:)
      @Paul - my point was that it would be ridiculous to put Wahlberg as a science teacher. He casted him because that is absurd and no one would do that if they were making a serious movie.

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    6. Let me just add, just for the sake of argument, that B movie doesn't mean BAD movie. A lot of people get that confused, especially in the current, modern Syfy Channel culture. Whether the movie is good or bad is up to subjective opinion. I agree with Patrick's hypothesis for what Night thought he was making - a smaller, higher concept, sensationalistic movie. The sensationalism involved is what makes it a B movie, or, in the proper sense, I think, something that, in the 70s, would have been called a drive in movie. As for the dialogue and the delivery of the dialogue, line delivery in Night's films, at least up until this point in his filmography, have always been very deliberate, and here he really goes for broke with it.

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    7. But what if he was being very deliberate about making it sound like a 70s disaster horror movie? Watch The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. Also, nobody thinks it's hilarious when the bodies start falling from the sky? They didn't even look like people! I can't be the only one sees this. Like it or not, every movie he does has a twist. The twist is that it's the wind? That's not a twist. The movie is the twist. You think you are watching one thing but you are actually watching something completely different. That's what he does.

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    8. He WAS being very deliberate about making it sound like a 70s disaster movie.

      The bodies weren't falling from the sky. They were falling from the roof of a building. And I don't know, man, they certainly looked like bodies to me.

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    9. Fair enough

      Hello. My name is Elliot Moore. I'm just going to talk in a very positive manner, giving off good vibes. We're just here to use the bathroom, and we're just going to leave. I hope that's okay...
      Plastic. I'm talking to a plastic plant...
      I'm still doing it.

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    10. Which cue in the soundtrack is from The Bees, though?

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    11. Oh fuck, now I get it... he wanted to make a "Bee Movie"

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    12. And BTW, the plants never say "yeah, we did it," ISIS-style; I think the bees are the real culprits (controlled by another Shyamalan supervillain, The Beekeeper, as to be revealed in Unbreakable the Third: Bee-king Glass)

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    13. It's during the title sequence. The music that is associated with the movie is from The Bees.

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  5. I have not seen this since I saw it in a theater, and I remember having an experience similar to Patrick's--I thought the movie was bad, and things quickly devolved into a fair portion of the the audience laughing at what was "happening."

    Perhaps I need to give it another shot and really try to give it the benefit of the doubt as an intentionally ludicrous B movie.

    I love Signs (I'll admit it's formulaic and tidy as hell, but the suspense, humor, and great acting performances sell it for me). I genuinely liked Lady in the Water when I saw it in the theater; I didn't just admire its ambition--I LIKED it. So even if I still don't like the Happening after a second watch, I can't begrudge anyone who does.

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  6. If all perspectives are welcome, then consider this a different perspective.

    http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/2008/06/movie-review-happening-2008.html?m=1

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