The Happening (*)
M. Night Shyamalan is the critics’ favourite whipping boy because his films represent everything that’s wrong with auteurism. His idol is Hitchcock, yet Hitchcock was an auteur of another era—one who worked with ideas and scripts he did not conceive himself, and hired actors who could contribute their own considerable charisma to his films. Conversely, Shyamalan’s execrable new The Happening falls apart because it is in its director’s fist; nothing escapes his smothering purview.
Take, for instance, the dreadful work done by The Happening’s three leads—Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo—which suggests either that they were at the mercy of Shyamalan’s wrong-headed orders, or were just ignored outright. In any case, these actors are capable of greatness (interestingly, they’ve all proven they can outshine bad direction before), but have been summarily humiliated by having to say and do preposterous things. (Yes, the rumours are true: The Happening contains a scene in which Wahlberg apologizes to a fake plant.)
A lot of blame, then, must be placed on The Happening’s script, inspired by The Birds (1963) in its aim to be a B-grade disaster plot with existential implications. The problem is not with the concept—a strange virus, thought to have terrorist origins but eventually attributed to plants, makes people commit suicide—but with how it develops. Committing suicide is notoriously difficult to do, and the virus’ victims manage to do it right away; not once is someone shown failing, or stopped by a kind, healthy soul.
To his credit, Shyamalan refrains from the twist ending that has become his trademark and for which he’s been incessantly derided. There are also some remarkable images in The Happening, reminders of his real forte. Indeed, despite the hopes of many that this film will do Shyamalan in for good, one might hope instead, and with more compassion and naïveté, that its failure will finally wake us all up to the dangers of positioning directors as cinema’s unimpeachable kings.
The Happening is now playing at AMC Yonge and Dundas (10 Dundas St. E.), Rainbow Cinemas Market Square (80 Front St. E.) and SilverCity Yorkdale (3401 Dufferin St.).