In M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," there's something in the air, or the parks, or something, that causes people to stop whatever they're doing, slide into a trance and commit suicide. That same cryptic something apparently also causes talented writer-directors to forget how to seduce an audience.
Shyamalan has had a rough streak, what with "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" and now this. True, "The Happening" rests on a workable premise, and the writer-director of "The Sixth Sense" manages a handful of isolated creepy images illustrating this mass-suicide notion. Early in the film construction workers hurl themselves off a tall building, one by one. Later, a group of survivors drives into an empty city, and the sight of tall ladders leaning against trees is a prelude to an arresting sight.
Later still Betty Buckley, as a rural survivor of the unexplained viral attack, does something entirely natural to her though startling to us: She smacks the hand of a little girl reaching for a cookie.
Otherwise the movie grinds along, solemnly, and it feels an awful lot longer than its 90 minutes. Playing his first full-on ninny, Mark Wahlberg is the high school science teacher who evacuates Philadelphia along with his wife (Zooey Deschanel), his fellow teacher ( John Leguizamo) and his friend's daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). To the country! We'll be safe there! Wahlberg and company form a ragtag band of brothers and sisters, determined to survive. We know trouble's coming whenever the breeze picks up and the grass starts to sway. It's so not frightening, it's frightening.
The characters are either gasbags or forgetful. No matter how many dead bodies turn up on the road, someone tells someone else to close a window or get inside or something, and the response, always, is this: "Why? Is something wrong?" The picture, shot in cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's trademark overcast tones, provides a full array of suicide methodology, delivered with a doleful air: gunshots, the aforementioned plummeting, needles in the neck and death by rider mower (!). In the film's one true moment of two-exclamation-point camp, we watch a zookeeper feed his arms to a lion!! Let me amend that: !!!
After the insufferably dense mermaid mythology of "Lady in the Water," Shyamalan clearly wanted to keep things simple. He whizzed straight past "simple" to simplistic: Wahlberg and Deshanel's marriage is supposed to be on the rocks (something about her having dessert with a co-worker—?!?), and he wanted kids but she didn't. Still, if there's one thing grisly unexplained phenomena are good for, it's marriage counseling. I admire "The Sixth Sense" and most of "Signs," but I don't get what has happened to this filmmaker's storytelling instincts. "We can't just stand here as uninvolved observers!" the saucer-eyed Deschanel says at one point. True enough. In "The Happening," the roles of the uninvolved observers will be played by the audience.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "The Happening."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times