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HAPPENING, THE(director/writer: M. Night Shyamalan; cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto; editor: Conrad Buff; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Mark Wahlberg (Elliot Moore), Zooey Deschanel (Alma Moore), John Leguizamo (Julian), Betty Buckley (Mrs. Jones), Frank Collison (Nursery Owner), Victoria Clark (Nursery Owner’s Wife), Ashlyn Sanchez (Jess), Spencer Breslin (Josh), Jeremy Strong (Private Auster), Robert Bailey Jr (Jared); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mr. Shyamalan/Sam Mercer/Barry Mendel; 20th Century Fox; 2008-USA/India)
“Might be perceived by some as all peaches and cream for entertainment value even if everything else about it is not happening.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

After six films filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s (“The Sixth Sense”/”Unbreakable”/”The Village”) initial luster has worn thin and he should no longer be perceived as an A director, especially after so many bad films in a row. But if this hokum sci-fi/environmental horror film is viewed in the same light as those 1950s paranoiac Red Scare B-films, it should be clear how it at least offers some of those same strong atmospheric scenes despite not delivering much else (it also came through with a good chilling premise and setup, but MNS just couldn’t do much else with this goofy undertaking to make it genuinely exciting and again gives us no payoff). It’s a lesser film that at one time would have been meant for only drive-ins, and is not to be taken seriously for even a Philly sec; it’s certainly not the type of film a major director makes who hopes to remain a major director. MSN tried pretty much the same scary nature scenario in Signs and it didn’t go over; here he makes it a little harder edged (more graphic violence) and as a result earns his first R rated film, though it still feels like a sexless family film. If one is willing to suspend one’s disbelief and also overlook both its awkwardness and preachiness, MNS’s latest silly spooky film might be perceived by some as all peaches and cream for entertainment value even if everything else about it is not happening. Its lame story, stilted dialogue, unfulfilling ending, failure to be scary throughout and too many unconvincing wooden characters—including its miscast female star Zooey Deschanel (who is a whiner sporting a startled look on her kisser as if she’s in the wrong pic), should be enough of a reason to dis it and dissuade even those who are willing to cut MSN a break because they still think he might be a young genius in progress. But, in the end, the film leaves a lot to be desired and a lot for any viewer to overlook even if it blows by you like a gentle summer breeze.

It opens with a sunny morning in New York’s crowded Central Park, when suddenly all the joggers, walkers, muggers and bench sitters just stop dead in their tracks and start violently offing themselves. The TV’s first reaction tells us this could be caused by terrorists using bio-germ warfare in an airborne attack that’s even more deadly than 9/11. Nice guy innocent, the dedicated Philadelphia high school science teacher, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), is giving a lesson on why the honeybees are mysteriously disappearing when the NYC attack is learned and the school is dismissed. Elliot and his math teacher colleague Julian (John Leguizamo), along with their dear ones, are set to meet at the Pennsylvania Station to split from the city to the boonies (following the conception most Americans have that rural America is safer than big cities in the event of an attack by jihadists). But Julian’s wife can’t make it on time and informs him that she’ll catch a later train and for him to go ahead with their eight-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), while Elliot’s sulking wife Alma (Zoey Deschanel), who just had some minor marital spat with hubby, sucks it up and jumps on the train with the other three. By now a full-scale evacuation is in progress, as the TV reports there are other attacks along the northeast and the confused experts on TV now say the attacks might not be from terrorists. In the small-town of Filbert, Pa, the passengers are forced to get off and are told to fend for themselves because the train is unable to continue after losing contact with the outside world. When Julian learns his wife went to Princeton by bus (maybe she was looking for a reincarnated Einstein!), he leaves Jess with his friends and goes searching for his wife (smart move, if I were in this pic I would also try to extricate myself from it as quickly as possible). The Moores hook up with a sweet, hot dog loving eccentric couple (Victoria Clark, Frank Collison) who have a car and own the local nursery, and in all seriousness demonstrate to the teacher they can talk to their plants and the plants have no problem understanding them (that’s the kind of wacky pic it aspires to, and it could have got over if it was only funny).

The road to safety in the wide-open country fields becomes a minefield of clichés and hokey scares that has nature turning against mankind because of polluters (in other words, you don’t fuck with Mother Nature). The prophet-like filmmaker tells us the day of reckoning has come because of man-kinds disregard of nature. Wherever the befuddled Elliott leads his charges, that same scenario that took place in Central Park is also happening here. MNS is intent on showing how fear over terrorism drives many Americans crazy and brings out their worst instincts; that’s highlighted, in the film’s weakest moments, by a crazy country hermit woman (Betty Buckley), in an overwrought performance that never delivered the humor or chills intended, as she gives the fleeing in panic teacher and his crew the business.

Aside from the setup evoking some sense of creepiness over the act of nature and its few offsetting “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” moments, it would have probably come off better if filmed as a social conscious documentary on something like Greenpeace—the dramatics just didn’t cut it.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”