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Friday, June 13, 2008

The Happening: M. Night Shyamalan can’t break out of his rut

click to enlarge happening1.jpg

The trailers for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller give away the supernatural premise. Beginning in New York’s Central Park, an unexplained phenomenon — what novelist Don DeLillo would call “an airborne toxic event” — causes innocent bystanders to commit suicide. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel play a young married couple trying to stay ahead of the silent catastrophe as it strikes smaller towns and population centers.

A different kind of outbreak appears to have affected the characters in Shyamalan’s movies, who have become the equivalent of pod people. Shyamalan’s brilliant breakout film The Sixth Sense, with its warm, sympathetic interplay between Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, increasingly seems like a fluke. I’m a defender of his crop-circles film Signs, but even then, his dialogue became less natural, the performances more stilted. Success seems to have robbed Shyamalan of the human touch.

In The Happening, the acting and dialogue sound so artificial and off, you can’t tell whether characters are meant to come across as amusingly quirky, mentally ill or simply average citizens. This isn’t a small problem. This kind of film should throw presumably ordinary Americans into extraordinary peril. One of the few highlights finds a group of people at a rural crossroads, with rumors of disaster arriving from all directions. The Happening’s cast should present themselves like a cross section of the country, and not sedated mental patients.

When Signs came out in 2002, Newsweek put Shyamalan on a cover story headlined “The Next Spielberg?” But Stephen Spielberg’s early work such as Jaws captured middle-American life with affection and naturalism, while Shyamalan’s point of view comes across as increasingly alien. He can craft some efficient suspense scenes, particularly when Wahlberg and company run on foot across a field, trying to escape the calamity. Other times, Shyamalan misses the mark completely. Early on we learn that New York City is being evacuated, but a scene at a Manhattan train station looks almost serene, and significantly calmer than the average rush hour.

If we could identify the characters, we could excuse the preposterousness of the toxic event’s source, and the heavy-handedness of the themes. Instead, Shyamalan cudgels us with environmentalist concern and post-9/11 paranoia. A billboard outside a Pennsylvania model home says “You deserve this!” and it clearly intends to say that mankind has brought the catastrophe on itself. The Happening’s social message fails to inform us of anything we don’t already know. Frankly, you can find more insight into the fragility of contemporary structures in the recent “South Park” episode “Over Logging,” in which the town turns to chaos when the Internet crashes. (“Without the Internet, how will we find out what happened to the Internet?”)

At his best, Shyamalan shows a command of cinematic suspense comparable to Alfred Hitchcock, but perhaps he became a brand name too soon, stunting his artistic development. The Happening tries to combine apocalyptic dread with hints that love can conquer all, but we can’t swallow the filmmaker’s medicine. It’s perfectly acceptable if he believes in ghosts or aliens, but mood rings? No way.

The Happening 2 stars Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Stars Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel. Rated R. Opens Fri., June 13. At area theaters.

(Photo © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox)

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