When you make a movie about a killer whose identity is a mystery, it is common to have the actual killer be a suspect at some point early on, only to have him exonerated and other avenues pursued. Then, when it turns out he really was the bad guy all along, the audience is surprised. It’s a neat trick. “Law & Order” does it all the time.
I will do my best to avoid huge spoilers here, but M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” takes a more straightforward route — so straightforward that there’s never an ounce of suspense, mystery, or surprise. Someone theorizes about the culprit early on. After a while, everyone accepts it as the most likely explanation. And then in the end, we learn that … well, again, no spoilers, but let’s just say it’s disappointing. I haven’t seen a movie that spoiled so much for its audience so early since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which managed to do it in the title.
(The working title of “The Happening,” which I won’t tell you but which you can easily find on its IMDb page, might have spoiled it too, or at least would have given the audience too big a hint. But when a character gives the same hint 30 minutes into the film, you’ve kind of shot yourself in the foot anyway.)
The scenario: Starting in New York’s Central Park and spreading throughout the Northeast, people are being stricken with what is apparently an airborne toxin. It causes confusion first, then catatonia. Then it makes you kill yourself in whatever fashion is most convenient. Construction workers atop a skyscraper find it very easy to off themselves. A man at a zoo must take more drastic measures and feed himself to lions. So it goes.
In Philadelphia, a high school science teacher named Eliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), flee the city with Eliot’s co-worker Julian (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Eliot and Alma’s marriage is strained lately. This proves to be the least interesting aspect of a plot that is altogether uninteresting.
For reasons I cannot fathom, Shyamalan has directed the entire cast to deliver their lines in a flat, affectless manner. Everyone is stilted and blank, like they’re reciting something they’ve memorized — which I guess is technically what acting is, but it’s not supposed to sound like it. The sole exception is Wahlberg, whose delivery is earnest and whiny, like he’s impersonating a naive little boy. But he, too, always sounds starchy, never natural.
Why has Shyamalan done this? The style is clearly intentional, as it’s universal throughout the cast. As written, the dialogue is often goofy in its over-seriousness. Having everyone recite it so that it never sounds like real conversation anyway only draws attention to that.
And then we have the matter of the story. It is never scary. Moderately tense once or twice, sure. But it’s barely even engaging — I started tapping my watch at the 45-minute mark and couldn’t believe we were only halfway done — let alone frightening. It has no twists or turns or unexpected diversions. Shyamalan has surely squandered whatever clout he had left after “The Village” and “Lady in the Water” by convincing Fox to bankroll this disaster. If it were his first screenplay, it never would have gotten produced.
Shyamalan’s strengths as a visual filmmaker are still in evidence, with several nicely composed shots and a few eerily effective images. I encourage him to seek work as a cinematographer and leave the writing and directing to someone else. “The Happening” is even duller than its title.
D (1 hr., 31 min.; )