19 June 2008

The Happening

Written & Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Grade: B+

In a post-The Village and The Lady in the Water world, most moviegoing Americans by now ought to be familiar with M. Night Shyamalan’s lackluster writing skills and well-documented egomania. But the “writer”-director still deserves some esteem as a filmmaker; audiences and critics don’t give him credit for his singular talent as an old-fashioned craftsman. Few directors today, American or otherwise, know how to work the medium the way he does. Buy into The Village’s easy mockability if you will, but Joaquin Phoenix’s slow-motion rescue of Bryce Dallas-Howard was some of the most stirring use of decelerated projection I’ve ever seen. Shyamalan has obviously watched enough great films to know how the good ones look and move. He just hasn’t spent enough time at the library.

Because it’s legitimately funny, Shyamalan’s latest, The Happening, might in many ways be his best work, at least in a long while. Though not his cleverest or his most elegantly composed (and certainly imperfect on plenty of other fronts), the film still evinces the director’s sharp sensibility for striking images, carefully composed frames and graceful camera movements. No trailer as fine as The Happening’s trailer could be assembled from a visually unsophisticated film. But Shyamalan’s talents extend beyond those of a mere visualist: he knows how to fuse those images together in order to build tension—here he manages to transform several shots of wind blowing through trees into credible threats—and elicit pathos. (The Happening builds to a poignant, even if contrived, climax.) But for the first time, intentionally anyway, Shyamalan has managed to make us laugh, thanks primarily to the lead casting of Mark Wahlberg.

Using the self-consciously comic persona he crafted for I Heart Huckabees, marked by an endearingly worldly-wise but earnest idealism, Wahlberg teases some much-needed guffaws from Shyamalan’s insipid dialogue and characterizations, particularly a scene in which he speaks soothingly to an ersatz rubber tree. (In contrast, John Leguizamo, in a supporting role, fails at this task; his edgy delivery of a line—“don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it!”—proves to be the film’s most asinine moment.) Wahlberg alone takes the pejorative implication out of calling the movie laughable. Whether or not M. Night has learned to laugh at himself—whether he’s in on the film’s joke—is both debatable and beyond the point. With the good sense to entrust Wahlberg with the role, Shyamalan has ensured that only the most cynical and unforgiving viewers (those that cannot greet any Shyamalanesque Shyamalan effort with anything but mockery) should find themselves laughing at the film. Well, more than a few times anyway.

Wahlberg stars as a New York City science teacher whose lectures about missing honeybees and environmental abuse are interrupted by what’s mistakenly believed to be a terrorist attack; “just when you thought there wasn’t anymore evil that could be invented,” says Wahlberg’s saucer-eyed wife, Zooey Deschanel, comes an airborne toxin to disrupt the proper flow of mankind’s neurotransmitters, leading to mass suicide across the Northeastern Seaboard.

If Lady in the Water, which even Shyamalan’s staunchest apologists should find impossible to defend, served in part to attack the critical establishment (literally, sigh), The Happening goes farther to attack the ticket-buying public that has seemingly betrayed the director. Shyamalan aims to take Americans, both those in cities and small towns, to task on several fronts, beyond their reluctance to fawn over his films: most notably, their disregard for Mother Earth (nuclear smokestacks figure prominently in a shot of the Pennsylvania countryside) and their misanthropic triggerhappiness.

Every American that Wahlberg & Co. meet is either disdainfully callous, like the many motorists who deny our heroes a ride, or peculiar (and easy to laugh at), from the man who won’t stop waxing poetic about hot dogs to the histrionic old woman convinced that Wahlberg is trying to rob and murder her. Shyamalan even mocks the military, making its one representative a bumbling yokel straight out of Mayberry. It’s a bit mean-spirited—Shyamalan lingers on a real estate billboard that reads, “You Deserve This!”—but in the end well-taken, up to a point. With the Midwest currently up to its street signs in flooding, The Happening, wrapping global warming (and more!) anxieties in 1950’s B-movie atmosphere, is simultaneously the most serious and most fun piece of post-Inconvenient Truth filmmaking that America has yet produced.

Watch the (red band) trailer:

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