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What the hell's happening in The Happening?

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Mark Wahlberg attempts to teach his Film 101 students how to craft a major motion picture.

The first sentence of "horror scholar" Kim Newman's stirring Guardian film blog defense of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" is: "Here's the thing: 'The Happening' is not that bad."

After noting that the film opened to "near-universal derision in America and Britain," and acknowledging that Shyamalan's "scripts are sometimes mawkish, sometimes pretentious," Newman defends the writer-director's "knack for genuine 'jump' moments and whispered, intense conversations that raise a chill." Newman concludes: "Can it be a kind of racism that the Indian-born, Philadelphia-raised auteur is hammered for his apparent character (or funny name) rather more than, say, Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee?"

Wow, so the best the "horror scholar" can muster on behalf of "The Happening" is that it's "not that bad" -- and the hostile reaction to Shyamalan must have to do with the filmmaker's "funny name" or his race? That's insulting. What about his Philadelphianism? Maybe that explains it.

Newman is dead wrong about at least one thing: "The Happening" is that bad. It's just not consistently that bad. Fleetingly, it's even pretty good. An effectively creepy image or sequence will be followed by long stretches so ineptly staged, shot and cut together that you want to throw up (your arms) in frustration. I did, anyway.

It sets its tone quickly and efficiently. Two women are sitting on a bench at the edge of Central Park. They're both reading. It's one of those slightly hazy, light gray days, and you sense something ominous in the very ordinariness of it. One of the women says she forgot where she was -- ostensibly referring to her book. The other explains the spot in the story where the other woman had just been reading. There's something uncanny about this, because even if they were both reading the same book, how would the one know which part the other was reading? The important thing is that the woman who asked the question is disoriented. She's experienced a little hiccup in the flow of reality.

A scream pierces the white noise of the traffic and the wind. A long shot of a playground stays on the screen just long enough for you to scan it and not find anything amiss. Maybe it the shriek came from children playing? We know damn well it didn't, but we're allowed to have that moment in which we instinctively grasp for an ordinary explanation.... and don't get one. Enough, then, about this opening set piece -- which, let's just say, gets more disturbing as it goes along.

Next, we're at a construction site a few blocks away. This section also contains some shivery imagery (featured in the trailer and TV spots), but a key element is missing: Something that gives us a sense of scale to connect what's going on at ground level with what's going on above in a single, unbroken image -- no matter how brief. A hand-held "glance" up or down the side of the building for perspective would have been been sufficient. The movie -- not for the last time -- doesn't provide it. So, the scene feels choppy -- "cheated," as Buster Keaton might have put it -- rather than chilling.

Then things really start going wrong. In a classroom (which turns out to be not in New York but Philadelphia, though I'm not sure how or when that information is revealed -- maybe I missed a time/place title or something), science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) engages in Socratic dialog with his students. He really tries to engage them, walking into the rows between their desks. But his longest exchange is with a kid who is inexplicably isolated in single shots, in some part of the classroom that seems to exist on a different physical plane. Why is this?

My first thought was that the kid was initially "singled out" because he wasn't paying attention, and therefore may as well have been in another room. But, you know, if you have to stop in the middle of the movie and wonder why something is being shot in an odd way, it's probably not working. It reminded me of the awkward staging of the living room conversation between Bruce Willis and Toni Collette in "The Sixth Sense" -- where you notice the peculiar, stilted quality and you are unsettled by the eeriness of how it's been staged and shot. In that movie, there was a very good reason. In this one... well, maybe they had to do reshoots and Shyamalan couldn't get Wahlberg and the extras back to do them? Your guess is as good as mine.

Again, it's a minor detail, but those kinds of things add up in a hurry. I defy anyone to depict a school evacuation more flatly and perfunctorily than Shyamalan does here. Maybe it was shot and chopped down to practically nothing? What remains offers no suspense, no aura of mystery or excitement or drama or impending doom as the school day is disrupted. That's a big deal, but nobody acknowledges it. I still remember the butterflies in my stomach -- dread mixed with excitement -- when we'd have emergency evacuation drills in preparation for the arrival of Russian nuclear missiles. Why aren't those just-below-the-surface feelings of foreboding evoked, or allowed, here? Shyamalan suggests post-9/11 paranoia, but doesn't take the time to develop it.

It's a botched opportunity, one of many. The best Shymalan can do to whip up a little portentousness is to inexplicably have the vice principal personally notify the teachers of a spontaneous faculty meeting in an empty auditorium while classes are in mid-session -- leaving all classrooms unsupervised in the meantime -- so that the principal to tell them that Something Weird Is Happening in Central Park (in New York City, that is) and that all the kids are to be sent home for the day.

Shyamalan's previous debacle, "Lady in the Water," exhibited all the same problems as "The Happening," especially on the level of Filmmaking 101: knowing how to "cover" a scene, how to set up a shot, when to cut to the next one and what it should be. WATch ing; thismovieiS a B I T L LLL L i Kk e Re-LiKe-ADING -thisSENTence. It's random, erratic, and and the errors distract from the feeling and the sense of what it's trying to convey.

Shyamalan seems to have devoted all his talent and skill to bringing off five or six images/effects in the entire film. The rest of the time, he either doesn't know or doesn't care what he's doing, though whether it's due to laziness or lack of interest is unclear. The compact between movie and audience known as "suspension of disbelief" has nothing to do in this instance with the film's otherworldly (or all-too-worldly) apocalyptic premise. We are ready, willing and able to believe that something in the air is mysteriously causing people to lose the will to survive. "The Happening" has more fundamental problems. It doesn't know how to make you believe that people are getting off a train, or standing in a field, or sharing a meal at a kitchen table -- commonplace scenes that should require no suspension of disbelief but are so badly bungled here it's... unbelievable. (Show me an Uwe Boll scene that's more incompetently conceived than the pool party in "Lady in the Water" or the porch scene in "The Happening." How bad can this Boll guy really be?)

"The Happening" plays like an exceptionally sloppy first assembly, and if the screenplay is anything but a first draft then Shyamalan should really be ashamed. (Let him come up with ideas that other writers and directors can execute.) Plot points are detonated like landmines in deafening explosions of expository dialog, just so they can be repeated (yes, we heard him say that the first time) to reinforce again something we've just had shoved in our faces, too. I'm beginning to think much of the hostility toward Shyamalan may have to do with -- dare I say it? -- his filmmaking. I detect in his films an outright hostility -- contempt, lack of respect -- for his audience, and perhaps viewers and critics are returning it in kind. On the other hand, I know a number of people who find his pictures fun and rather charming, but sometimes there's a patronizing attitude beneath their fondness; they tend to speak of Shyamalan's abilities as if he were a clever child who'd just presented them with a crayon drawing.

As the ads incessantly remind us, "The Happening" is at least an R-rated fable. You can argue about the need for a certain gruesome lawnmower incident midway through the picture, but Shyamalan has the sense to shoot it from afar, as Elliot watches in helpless horror from a grassy rise. The distance, the telephoto flatness of the image, enhances the horror of the event (even if it's stretched out just a little too long).

Yet what are we supposed to make of, say, a pointless scene in which a group of people come upon a truck abandoned in a field near a large house? Elliot tells the others to wait and approaches the vehicle in search of a map. (Don't ask.) The door is open and the radio is on, tuned to some wacko call-in show -- maybe on Sirius, because it's not local. He turns off the radio. He grabs the local map conveniently located between the front seats. Then he returns to the group (and the previous long shot). Hey, there's a house over there, he says to the people who might have been incapable of noticing it had he not pointed it out. Let's go to that house now. They do. "The Happening" is said to be 91 minutes long. Why is it not at least one minute shorter?

Soon, Elliot's posse is delighted to come upon a functioning emergency radio hanging from a fence. The recorded voice on the radio is saying that people should head for a certain location. There is some static. Elliot shakes and rattles the radio in frustration. This does not help matters. What does Elliot want from the radio? The entire emergency message is clearly heard, to the point where it starts repeating. Their hopes dashed, the hapless group moves on. Surely 89 minutes would not have been so bad.

A train stops in Filbert, PA, because of a lack of contact with... anything. All the passengers are told to disembark. This is the end of the line. Elliot alone questions what's happening. No one else behaves like a human being (something the movie absolutely relies upon) who has just been stranded in Filbert, PA. Suddenly, everyone is hungry, crowded into a diner. The place is packed -- with stranded train-riders, I assumed. An announcement about a threat in the local area is made on the TV. The power goes out. Everyone hops into cars and speeds away to outrun whatever's coming. The place empties out in seconds. Only Elliot, his wife, their friend and his daughter are left behind, without transportation. A couple appears out of nowhere to offer them a ride. Elliot calls to their friend, who, it turns out, is talking to some other people in a jeep at the next intersection that has also appeared out of nowhere.

What follows is a drawn-out separation/negotiation scene that turns into a logistical nightmare for Shyamalan. The idling jeep remains visible behind the friend's head. Time, which had accelerated to blazing speeds as everyone evacuated the diner, has now -- only seconds later -- screeched to a standstill. Moments ago, people were fleeing in mad panic in all directions, but now these two clusters of laggards have aaaaaalllllll the time in the world. With every shot in which Shyamalan reminds us that the jeep is still there, waiting impatiently in the background, the situation becomes more ridiculous. It's supposed to be touching -- I think. Finally the friend wraps up his pointless explanatory rambling and the obligatory character-defining mathematics references (he's a math teacher). He starts running toward the patience-of-a-saint jeep. Then, and only then, does it begin to slowly drive away -- so he has to yell at the jeepers to wait up. He jumps in, there's a reverse shot from his POV, and now Elliot and wife are walking away from their own ride, toward the departing jeep. What is wrong with these people -- and this director? It's hard to imagine a more inept and clumsily paced handling of such a simple scene.

And poor Mark Wahlberg. He does his damndest to hold the movie together, but he's undercut at every turn. David Edelstein mentions "big, furrowed-brow close-ups that would kill the career of a lesser actor." To single out just one of them: There's a "joke," in which Elliot teases his wife (OK, she's played by Zooey Deschanel in what could very well be a career-killing performance) in an enormous, sustained close-up that smothers any possibility of humor -- yet Wahlberg probably comes as close as humanly possible under the circumstances.

Again, my mind began grabbing at straws, searching for answers: Why in the world would you choose to shoot this moment in such a tight close-up? Was this the only usable take? Why does the movie keep distracting me with choices that feel so unnatural and unwieldy that I can't concentrate on what's going on in the movie?

I guess it's just one of those inexplicable phenomena for which there is no rational explanation.

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