The Happening

One morning in New York City’s Central Park, as a faint breeze whispered through the trees, people suddenly stopped whatever they were doing and calmly began killing themselves. They used whatever means were handiest: a hairpin, a policeman’s firearm, gravity. They’d had enough of living. Unfortunately, as you may already be aware, this terrible event was captured on film.

No, it’s not Barbara Streisand’s Happening in Central Park, from 1967. This is writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest flagrantly mediocre thriller, The Happening. To keep them straight, just remember, as the marketing campaign insists, that the latter is rated R. That means it’s full of people flying off buildings or through car windshields, teenagers getting shot at point-blank range, and other gruesome spectacles, like Mark Wahlberg playing a high school science teacher.

As his wife, Zooey Deschanel does her cinematographer father–if not her actress mother–proud: Her job is to have the blank blue eyes of that space baby from 2001, and about as much emotional range.

The couple’s had some generic marital difficulties of late, probably because they’re both non-entities, so a half-assed disaster-movie plot seems like just the ticket to spice things up and reacquaint them. Also, the supporting cast includes John Leguizamo.

Cue the killings.

As our zeroes try to outrun the whatever it is, they inform each other, and us, through many exchanges of awkwardly expository dialogue, that they figure it’s an attack. Among the not yet dead, they encounter unseen shut-in rednecks with shotguns, a creepy old lady (Betty Buckley) and other caricatures, who tend promptly to become dead. Eventually, through science-teacher deduction, more casualties and more lousy, wince-inducingly performed dialogue, a new theory emerges (and this might be a spoiler): It’s not the terrorists; it’s the trees.

That’s right. You’ll just have to see it to understand. Or, better yet, don’t. This is a movie whose best destiny is to become the subject of much spoofery. Suggestions follow.

Like: What if The Happening had been framed rather more, ah, existentially? Say the real shock of deliberate death is that it comes on so tediously, through bad lifestyle choices. Imagine the creepy stillness in scenes of chain-smoking depressives lined up for miles at the McDonald’s drive-thru. Or dozing in recliners, ignoring their blood pressure.

Hell, what if it had been done by Antonioni? Think of it: No one even tries to explain, or to care; that pre-suicide catatonia registers more like bourgeois aloofness, set quietly among many gorgeous, expansive shots of trees, with occasional corpses.

Or why not Hitchcock? Oh, wait — he already did this movie, but it was The Birds.

On M. Night Shyamalan’s watch, The Happening briefly flirts with joining the ranks of cheaply cautionary action-adventure-thriller-blockbusters about epic natural disasters (see The Day After Tomorrow, or the various films of Michael Crichton novels). But Shyamalan prefers a more intimate scale, with smaller set pieces. A successful career full of cheap gimmicks has enabled his fool notion that the way to set an unsettling, suspenseful mood is to render scenes so ludicrously stilted that the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Perhaps the kindest thing to be said for The Happening is that Shyamalan knows a thing or two about getting into people’s brains and making them want to kill themselves.