It was purely in the interests of science that I watched The Happening. By the time I had got around to watching it, it was quite clear what kind of film it would be. But I’m always intrigued when people say a film is so bad, either to confirm to myself the overreaction or less often to see what new depths of awful it plumbed. It’s taken me a while, days, to gather my thoughts a little on the film, which left me almost speechless at the time. Speaking at length would be beating the thing to death, so here are my short impressions as best as I can remember them.
In The Happening, the most recent effort from M. Night Shyamalan, Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher. So there we have a problem already. Apparently Shyamalan wrote this part specifically for Wahlberg. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult. Obviously Mark Wahlberg does not scream science teacher to me. Gym teacher, maybe. Personal trainer, sure. Enthusiastic scholar of biology, not so much.
Wahlberg’s attempt of a teacher would make you believe he’d never been to school in his life. Sometimes his performance seems to echo his character from I Heart Huckabees, in an over-earnest delivery that was hilarious in that picture when I thought it was done on purpose. Now I’m not so sure. Like in I Heart Huckabees where he’d assert his right to speak and interfere in all matters by proclaiming “I’m a fire fighter” (to a round of applause), here Wahlburg says “I’m a teacher” in a similar manner.
His way of speaking in the film, fully pronouncing every word and phrase, makes you think he’s guesting on a children’s programme from the 70s. Zooey Deschanel, as Wahlberg’s wife, appears to be playing her character as if she’s off her face on prescription medication, but nobody seems to notice. John Leguizamo is passable playing sweaty and hyper, but seems to be biting his cheeks and doing a kind of nasally cartoon version of his own voice. I’d say these performances were some kind of sabotage, a deliberate attempt to undermine the film, but something about the way the actors hold themselves (and the genuine fear in their eyes sometimes) suggests that they are being aggressively directed to act this way.
The worst offender has to be the terrible script by Shyamalan. The most shocking thing about this horror thriller is the dialogue. This is a film in which Mark Wahlberg calls everyone “sir” and “madam”. Characters don’t speak so much as they just blurt out character traits and foreshadowing at the most stunningly inappropriate times. There are what I suppose are attempts at humour to break the non-existent tension, but since the rest of the movie is so unintentionally funny, these parts are more awkward than anything. At one point a soldier, upon being told of dead bodies lining the road, says “Cheese and crackers” as an expletive. That last one almost convinced me this film is meant to be a joke. In fact I heard that more recently, Shyamalan has been giving some kind of “deliberately bad” defence for this film, but I find it hard to swallow, not least of all because all his films are B-movie concepts anyway, why single this one out?
Obviously the idea of a mysterious natural compound nerve agent causing people to kill themselves is not from the real world, but this is clearly taking place in another universe or dimension entirely. I’m not sure any of the main characters are supposed to be humans, because they don’t act like any I’ve met. I was waiting for a last act twist that revealed all of this was taking place on some type of intergalactic version of a daytime soap opera shot on a distant space ship for the amusement of some rather stupid aliens.
The world of The Happening is one where you can snatch a phone off a woman who’s daughter is in the process of killing herself. It’s one where 60 year old women have iPhones, and their sisters send them graphic footage of a man being lazily torn apart by bored looking lions. Here, it makes sense if everyone is stranded in a small town they came to by train but they all somehow manage to leave by car. And it’s not strange to leave your daughter with a woman you don’t like or trust rather than have her sit on your knee. In this world Alan Ruck from Ferris Bueller can (briefly) be the principal of a school, and the eyes of Dante from Clerks will drive you to Princeton. Also, when answering a question about where your wife has gone, you say “She’s gone to the town of Princeton, New Jersey”. The whole thing! I thought only titles in Quentin Tarantino movies and lyrics in Tupac Shakur songs said things like “The Town of Princeton” or “The City of Compton”.
Without a doubt, The Happening is the worst film I’ve seen in quite some time. I haven’t even talked about Mark Wahlberg, a science teacher mind you, trying to outrun the wind or many other things I’m sure you’ve heard elsewhere. With Lady in the Water and now this, I think it’s safe to say that Shyamalan has become a bit detached from reality. Hilariously at the end, he throws in a backpack for that kid’s movie he is doing next, as if anyone who has sat through this would want to see anything from this man again. I’ve seen a great number of silly films in recent years but it’s been a long time since I saw one that I felt violated my protection against cruel and unusual punishment quite like this one. My thoughts are with the family of Mark Wahlberg, who I hope can escape an untimely career death from this howler.