Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

*The following review may or may not have happened. Read it and see what happens. Is something happening yet? Well, what did you expect to happen, really?*

Sigh. Can you guess what movie I'm reviewing? That's right: M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening! I know, I know... In all fairness, I admitted in my review of Lady in the Water that I couldn't promise to stay away from The Happening, though. I need to be "in the know," what can I say other than that? I also mentioned in my Lady in the Water review that I loved James Newton Howard's way-too-good-for-the-material-or-filmmaker score and that I was considering buying it. Well, I did buy it, and I'm thrilled because it's so exquisite. Anyway, I was on iTunes and decided to check out and sample Howard's score for The Happening. One track title stood out: "You Eyin' My Lemon Drink?" Really? REALLY? Hmm. This didn't bode well for The Happening. Still, I kept my mind open, as always.

And, well, I never thought I would say this, but...

The Happening is worse than Lady in the Water.

Process that sentence. Absorb its impact. The Happening just so happens to be worse than Lady in the Water. Way worse. And if you're curious, yes, I plan to use some variation of the word "happen" in this review a lot, à la Mr. Shyamalan in his dreadful screenplay. We get it already! We KNOW what the title of the movie is - it's not clever to simply repeat it over and over.

The Happening is one of the worst movies ever made, and surely the death knell of Shyamalan's career. How did this...HAPPEN? Let's examine some dialogue, shall we? As we happen down this treacherous path, I'll intersperse my snarky commentary. (Oh, by the way, this review will contain spoilers. But, really, how can you spoil a movie that spoils itself with its lousiness or that is just one big, appalling spoiler in the truest sense of the word? Also, the quote origin won't be revealed unless it comes from a major character.)

Alma (Zooey Deschanel): "Can you believe how crappy people are?"

I don't remember why she said this, but trust me, it was horrifically lame when she did. Who calls people "crappy"? Certainly there must be a better adjective available. Everyone's dying, and she lashes out with that? Me-ow. Stay away from that kitty until she retracts her claws.

Train Conductor: "The train service has been discontinued. This will be the last stop for all passengers."
Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg): "Hey, what do you mean? Where are we?"
Train Conductor: "Filbert, Pennsylvania."
Elliot Moore: "Filbert? Does anybody know where that is? Why are you giving me one useless piece of information at a time? What's going on? Hey, why would you just stop? You can't just leave us here!"
Train Conductor: "Sir, we lost contact."
Elliot Moore: "With whom?"
Train Conductor: "Everyone."

I tore this scene apart in another post. It's so wrong on so many levels. First, Wahlberg's character is ridiculously belligerent. What's with the barrage of questions? I mean, concern is one thing, but harassment is another. Bad acting doesn't help either. "Filbert? Does anybody know where that is?" Well, yeah, apparently, that's why the train stopped there. Also, I bet the residents of Filbert would be highly offended. Elliot's not running for mayor anytime soon, I guess. "Why are you giving me one useless piece of information at a time?" To clarify, this is the first time the two have spoken. One useless piece of information at a time? The implication in Elliot's question is that the conductor is hurling words at him, chock full of facts, at a rapid rate. The conductor couldn't be more calm, and he only said ONE thing.

"What's going on? Hey, why would you just stop? You can't just leave us here." He continues to get more aggressive. Actually, it's more whiny, like a baby with anger issues (ah, it must be an autobiographical character). The use of "just" two sentences in a row is just bad writing (ha...my "just" is justified, though). The nearly-comatose conductor responds: "Sir, we lost contact." Elliot: "WITH WHOM?" AHH! That phrasing bothers me to no end. It's a dealbreaker. Yes, it might be grammatically correct, but it doesn't sound right. People don't talk like that. And while he's screeching it, Wahlberg looks like he was the victim of bad Botox. If he's not careful, his face will freeze like that. My face was certainly frozen at the movie - in horror...and not in the way Shyamalan desired that reaction.

Elliot Moore: "You're not interested in what happened to the bees?"

[Jake shakes his head]

Elliot Moore: "You should be more interested in science, Jake. You know why? Because your face is perfect. The problem is, your face is perfect at 15. Now if you were interested in science, you would know facts like the human nose and ears grow a fraction of an inch each year. So a perfect balance of features now might not look so perfect five years from now, and might look down right whack ten years from now."

[students laugh]

Elliot Moore: "Come on, buddy. Take an interest in science. What could be the reason bees have vanished?"

Jake: [after a long pause] "An act of nature, and we'll never fully understand it."

Elliot Moore: "Nice answer, Jake. He's right. Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it'll be just a theory. I mean, we will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding. To be a scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature."

[Jake raises his hand]

Elliot Moore: "Jake?"

Jake: "How much does the human nose grow each year?"

Elliot Moore: "It's miniscule, buddy. Okay? Don't worry about it. You're going to be a heartthrob your whole life. I was just messing with you."

Again, so much wrong, so many levels. This is an exchange between high school science teacher Elliot and one of his students. At least he'd stopped calling them "honeybees" by this point. Elliot's majorly homoerotic rationale for why Jake should be more interested in science is horrifying. I don't think teachers are allowed to talk like that to students. Two words: child molester. "To be a scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature"? Isn't "respect" a part of "awe"? It's not a necessary modifier, but such is the awkward screenwriting of M. Night Shyamalan, a man who has apparently never heard people talk in real life. But the more important part - Jake will be a heartthrob the rest of his life. Like, say, until he's 18, Elliot? CREEPY. "Hello, School Board?"

To continue with the quotes, I need to briefly explain the plot, and ruin it by telling you what...happens. Elliot (Wahlberg), a high school science teacher, is married to Alma (Deschanel), but their marriage is strained. She's cheating on him (sort of) with a guy named Joey (Shyamalan in his, thankfully, only cameo, and he's just heard through the phone for one line). An event happens in Central Park, New York City. Here's the secret: the plants are conspiring to kill us. We've been mistreating them, and boy, are they mad. They're releasing a toxin that causes people to commit suicide with whatever implement happens to be handy at the time. Word gets around, causing people to evacuate, but wherever they go (in the realm of the northeast, at least), it's still happening. Elliot, Alma, and a random sampling of Americans, including Elliot's colleague, a Math teacher named Julian (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) flee. Julian soon kills himself (a total relief - no more math problems or nasally accent), so Elliot and Alma, who stereotypically don't have kids because there are "issues," have to adopt Jess for the day. Um, what else? Suicide abounds in graphic and increasingly uninventive ways. The ending is ridiculous, but I'll deal with that later. I guess that's it. Resuming excessive quoting:

Principal: "Alright, there appears to be an event happening. Central Park was just hit by what seems to be a terrorist attack. They're not clear on the scale yet. It's some kind of airborne chemical toxin that's been released in and around the park. They said to watch for warning signs. The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The third stage...is fatal."

I'm not sure what I'd call this catastrophic phenomenon, but it certainly wouldn't be an event (if I happen to slip and say it in this review, it's just a matter of convenience). "Event" makes it sound like a cocktail party or a benefit. Is this event that's happening and making people kill themselves black tie? Hey, if it is, the tie can double as a fashion accessory AND a suicide tool. Awesome!

Okay, the warning signs are stupid. Confused speech is such a norm in Shyamalan's films anyway - how can anyone tell the difference? The physical disorientation and loss of direction lead to paralysis. Then, they become un-paralyzed and kill themselves. That struck me as terribly odd. It doesn't make sense to go from paralysis straight to suicidal. It's just a dumb excuse to have a bunch of people stand eerily still in the middle of a crowded public location. As I heard the stages being described, I thought, "Maybe the whole film is an experiment." You know, the speech is nonsensical, I felt disoriented, the film seemed to be paralyzed by its own ineptitude, and the result was fatal. If Shyamalan was a better filmmaker, or at least a more audacious one (like Michael Haneke, even if his efforts don't always pay off), I would believe that the whole film was an experiment, thus reflecting those stages through cinematic techniques. But, that's not the case. How do I know? Have you heard Shyamalan blather on about this movie? And besides, I just know. He's not that interesting.

Alma: "It makes you kill yourself. Just when you thought there couldn't be any more evil that can be invented."

Is evil really invented? ARG. What a horrible way to phrase it.

Weird Plant Guy: "We're packing hot dogs for the road. You know, hot dogs get a bad rep. They gotta cool shape, they got protein."

A "cool shape"?! Seriously, Shaymalan writes the worst filler dialogue. It's so unrealistic. I don't think he's had an actual conversation in years.

This next passage is from one of the worst scenes in the movie (and there were so many that you know this must be a doozy). Context: Elliot, Alma, and their group has separated from another group in a grassy field, thinking that larger clumpings of people were causing the plants to act up.

Elliot Moore: [shots are heard firing in the distance] "Oh no..."

Alma Moore: "What 'oh no'?"

Elliot Moore: "The toxin? The toxin's affecting them?"

Woman in Group: "Are those people killing themselves?!"

Realtor: "You were with the Private, what do we do?"

Alma Moore: "We need to do something!"

Elliot Moore: "Just let me think..."

Alma Moore: [as shots continually fire in the background] "They're dying!"

Elliot Moore: "I need a second..."

Realtor: "They released it? We're not near the roads!"

Alma Moore: "We can't just stand here as uninvolved observers!"

Elliot Moore: "I need a second okay? Just give me a second!"

Alma Moore: "We're not gonna be one of those assholes on the news who watches a crime happen and not do something! We're not assholes!"

Elliot Moore: "Just a second!"

Woman in Group: "There were children in that group!"

Alma Moore: "Elliot please tell us what to do!"

Elliot Moore: "I need a second okay? Why can't anybody give me a goddamn second?! [talks to himself] All right, be scientific, douchebag. Identify the... rules... design the experiment... careful observation, measurements, that's what I'm trying to do, interpret the experimental pattern, interpret... What if it IS the plants? That group was larger than ours. This thing's been escalating all day. Smaller and smaller populations have been setting this off. They react to human stimulus. Maybe people are setting off the plants?"

Alma Moore: "What are you saying? That guy was crazy! We have to save them!"

Elliot Moore: "They're already dead! What if they're targeting us as threats? This part of the field may not have been set off. Something in this field could be releasing the chemical into the air when there's too many of us together. Let's just stay ahead of the wind!"

And...scene. Riveting stuff, huh? It was agonizing for me to even read it. On the Hitchcock Suspense-o-Meter, this scene, and movie, gets a ZERO. First of all, Elliot is kind of nuts. There's reason to panic, sure, but he's practically having a panic ATTACK. Chill out, dude, they're just looking for some guidance, a position which you sort of took upon yourself, Mr. Alpha Male. His "I need a second" tantrum is pretty uncalled for and really melodramatic. How he comes to his conclusion, utilizing the steps of scientific investigation that he was conveniently teaching his students somewhere during the honeybee lecture, is irritatingly lame. He calls himself a douchebag? Who does that? Oh, and I beg to differ, Alma. You ARE assholes. What a stupid couple lines of dialogue she spews with that asshole mini-diatribe. It's just, yet again, something that doesn't sound natural in the real world or in whatever world this movie happens to be taking place in. People criticize a film like Juno for how the characters talk, but when they say it in the film, we believe it. It fits the world they inhabit. So, dialogue doesn't have to be realistic - it just has to make sense in context. It's not a lot to ask. And it doesn't make sense in The Happening, or in any of Shyamalan's recent films.

How Elliot and Alma reconcile the fact that she had freaking tiramisu with a guy ONCE:

Elliot Moore: "If we're going to die, I want you to know something. I was in the pharmacy a while ago. There was a really good-looking pharmacist behind the counter. Really good-looking. I went up and asked her where the cough syrup was. I didn't even have a cough, and I almost bought it. I'm talking about a completely superfluous bottle of cough syrup, which costs like six bucks."

Alma Moore: "Are you joking?"

[Elliot nods his head]

Alma Moore: "Thank you."

HUH? She didn't even really do anything to begin with, but it somehow causes Alma a huge amount of grief, Elliot gets unreasonably upset, and then this ties it all up in a pretty little bow? Wow, they should run a couples therapy group. What's superfluous was that passage of dialogue.

Crazy recluse lady: "Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?"

As per the track title on the score, I believe she actually said, "Why you eyin' my lemon drink?" or "You eyin' my lemon drink?" Whatever it is, it's absurd.

Julian: "Don't look outside. Stop it! Stop it! Just look at me. Just keep looking at me. Close the vents. I'm going to give you a math riddle, okay? And you're going to tell me the answer."

Panicked Woman in Car: "What?"

Julian: "How much...how much would you have if I said I would pay you a penny on the first day, and then two pennies on the second, and then four pennies on the third, and then it just kept doubling and it did this for a month. How much money would you have at the end of the month?"

Panicked Woman in Car: "Ten dollars?"

Julian: "Higher. Just keep looking at me. Just keep looking at me."

Panicked Woman in Car: "Twenty dollars?

Julian: "No. Keep going. Keep going."

Panicked Woman in Car: "Thirty. It's thirty dollars."

Julian: "I'll tell you the answer. It's over ten million dollars. You'd have over ten million dollars at the end of the month. Want to hear another one?"

NO! We don't. Math riddles?! Come on! What the hell, man? What kind of writing is this?! Yeah, math riddles are just about the worst way to distract someone from impending death ever.

Weird Plant Guy: "You know plants have the ability to target specific threats. Tobacco plants when attacked by heliothis caterpillars will send out a chemical attracting wasps to kill just those caterpillars. We don't know how plants obtain these abilities, they just evolve very rapidly."

Alma Moore: "Which species is doing it if you think it's true?"

Weird Plant Guy: "Plants have the ability to communicate with other species of plants. Trees can communicate with bushes, and bushes with grass, and everything in between."

Can they? How fascinating. That last bit of explanation from WPG was one of the most cringe-inducing moments in the entire movie, and certainly some of the worst screenwriting.

Elliot Moore: "Can this really be happening?"

Unfortunately, yes.

So, I did things a bit differently to start off this review, but now it's back to paragraphical prose. Geez, where do I go from that, though? Well, The Happening does not work at all. I'm sick of making concessions to him by saying that it's technically competent. It is. I expect most movies of this stature to be. James Newton Howard again extends himself for Shyamalan the life-draining leech by producing a score that's too good for The Happening. He manages to adapt his style to the tone of every film he does without losing his signature compositional voice. It's quite mind-blowing. The score is great, even though I barely noticed it because I was so appalled the whole time...that, or giggling uncontrollably. It's a chilling, eerie, poignant score for a movie that is none of the above. Tak Fujimoto's cinematography is consistently great and often stunning. But I feel sad for the two of them, because none of it really matters. Nothing makes this movie redeemable.

The acting is some of the worst I've ever seen in a mainstream movie. Mark Wahlberg should be stripped of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his atrocious work in The Happening. Let me see how I can put this - in terms of his competence and skill, it's like he's been catapulted back to the womb. He's totally helpless. To be fair, though, even a fetus could deliver a better performance than Wahlberg's, which truly is one of the most awful I've ever had the misfortune of witnessing. As I said before, Wahlberg looks like he's had bad Botox or something. His face is frozen in this idiotic mask of confusion throughout the entire movie, his eyebrows raised too high, wide eyes totally vacant...just the poster child for complete befuddlement. Zooey Deschanel is no better, but she's certainly not worse. Wahlberg is by FAR the worst, but Deschanel is excruciating to watch with her wispy voice, doe eyes (beautiful blue gaping voids of nothingness), and automatron-y behavior. I don't want to get into the other actors because, frankly, none of them are any good. And it's not just the material. Look at what Paul Giamatti did with Lady in the Water. An unispired project makes motivation difficult to find, but a real artist (lead, supporting, or extra) should be able to make it work. It doesn't even seem like the actors expended any effort whatsoever. In fact, I'm not sure they weren't drugged. Maybe they tried to get the hell out of Dodge, and Shyamalan had to drug them to keep them around, hence the comatose states of the leads.

There's something seriously wrong in the universe when a movie makes me think FONDLY of Lady in the Water. That's what The Happening did. I still stand by my review and my rating of LITW, but I was definitely feeling a twinge of nostalgia after I escaped the theater. I missed Paul Giamatti and his transcendent acting. It made me appreciate him even more.

Like I said (or at least distinctly alluded to), The Happening is worthless. It's not scary or suspenseful in the slightest. It doesn't function as entertainment in any capacity, and it's a pitiful cautionary tale that answers its own questions. It doesn't provoke thought or inspire change. It only tells us what we already know, in a very nihilistic way. Yes, global warming is a problem, we need to be nice to nature. Thanks for the memo, Shyamalan. There's this ridiculous news footage near the end of a professor or some other authority talking about why what happened, happened. I liken it to the psychiatrist scene at the end of Psycho, but way more out of place and even insulting to the intelligence of the audience. Oh yeah, I said I was going to discuss the ending. Well, I thought it was going to end about five different times. I briefly found religion just to pray for it to be over. It's a relatively short movie, only a little over an hour and a half, but why did I feel like I lost a year of my life in that theater? So, here's what happens (have you been keeping track of how many times I've used a form of "happen"?): Alma, Elliot, and little Jess are the only people alive. I guess the "event" took place over the course of a day, getting exponentially more harmful as time progressed. They're at the farm house of the crazy old lemon drink lady. I don't remember why, but the trio gets separated. Alma and Jess are in a shed, and he's in the house. Ah, but never fear (seriously, there's nothing to fear in this movie except for how bad it is), there's an Underground Railroad-era tube that serves as a rudimentary telephone between the structures.

So, Elliot and Alma are all lovey-dovey and weepy. If they go outside, they'll die. Then, Elliot decides that if they're going to die anyway (if they had just been patient and stayed inside, maybe they wouldn't have... worth a shot, right? PLOT HOLE!), he wants to die with her. I thought he was just going to go to their building, but I guess if he opened the door, they'd be exposed. Still, no one thought staying inside was the best option? Hello? Little girl with you, remember? Save your reconciliation for if you survive. Elliot comes outside, and Alma brings Jess with her outside to meet him in the middle of the field. They stand out there, it's windy, and then nothing happens. Fade to black. As it's fading, Elliot says, so faintly that I had to ask my companion later what the heck he said, "The event must have ended before we came out today." That's a rather important piece of information. Enunciation, louder sound on the dialogue, avoiding a long shot, perhaps not fading out to detract from it - all would have helped.

It could have ended there. However, it did not. Fast forward some months later to Philadelphia where Alma and Elliot are raising Jess. Alma finds out she's pregnant. This would be wonderful if we even remotely cared about the characters. Alma goes to greet Elliot in the street with the baby news. They embrace. NOW it must be the end, right? Wrong. At Alma and Elliot's, the TV is on, featuring the awkward news footage I mentioned earlier. Basically, the naysayer heavily suggests that this "event" was the result of the government. If it was really an enviromental problem, wouldn't it have happened in more places than just the northeast United States?

Well, sir, M. Night Shyamalan anticipated your skepticism, and he has designed a twist especially for you! After the hug in the street, cut to France. The scene exactly bookends the opening scene from Central Park, in which everyone starts talking crazily, freezing, and then killing themselves. Uh oh! It really is happening. We're all doomed. Finally, that was the end. And then I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor before exiting the theater.

Something else that really bothers me about The Happening is how Shyamalan sets up all of these plot elements early on that are supposed to be rewarding when they come back around, but instead, they make you roll your eyes and groan due to the sheer lameness of it all. It's so obvious that he's doing it, too, and that he thinks it's clever. A couple examples: the token sentimental object, a mood ring given to Alma by Elliot, which ends up being too prominent a part of the movie; Elliot giving his student a crash course in the scientific method only to be pressured into using it himself.

Also, the R-rating is the very definition of cheap. The violence is gratuitous and exploitative. It was all a shameless marketing stunt. You know what else is shamelessly offensive and presumptuous on Shyamalan's part? Naming Deschanel's character Alma. Coincidence that Alma is the name of Alfred Hitchcock's wife? I think not. What an ego.

Appeal to the studios: Please stop giving M. Night Shyamalan money until he figures out what he's doing with his career! Unfortunately, that won't...happen...because The Happening made a surprising amount of money on opening weekend, somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million. It's disheartening, because that's enough to greenlight another project of his.

There was a pronounced sense of irony surrounding my viewing of The Happening. All the people in the movie talk gibberish, experience paralysis, and then commit suicide. Well, Shyamalan's script is gibberish, the movie felt like it was made by someone in arrested development with creative paralysis, and I felt like I was watching him commit cinematic suicide. What a twist, huh?

Ooh, hey, how about this: The Happening made me doubt M. Night Shyamalan ever had any abilities as a filmmaker at all. Now there's a major twist that I didn't see coming.



Anonymous said...

One of the funniest things ever written about one of the worst scripts ever written. Priceless!

chemistchicago said...

With dialogue like that, I begin to wonder if I should go into screenwriting. I don't think I'd do much worse! The math riddle is truly ridiculous and I can only imagine how amazing Wahlberg was in delivering it!

Great scathing review! I think I'll go find a black tie for our next terrorist or weather 'event'.

Lisa Draski said...

At least Shyamalan's dialogue does some good - it makes people have faith in themselves that they're better or could be better if they blindfolded themselves and randomly scribbled on some paper...

And Leguizamo was the one who delivered the math riddle, but it was no less ridiculous. It was appallingly delivered.

Thanks for the compliments. :)