Oh M. Night
Shyamalan, what happened with "The Happening?" What made
you write such a silly script and direct with your eyes
closed? Didn't you realize that this movie just wouldn't
work? Did you look at the dailies and realize that your
direction was uninvolving? Didn't you watch the dailies
unfold before your Anne Hathaway eyes and realize that
the acting was amateurish? Didn't you notice the movie
had all the excitement and mystery of a bad first year
film school project? Why didn't someone come to you and
say, "M. Not to be mean, but this movie is awful!"
"The Happening" is on now on DVD.
Many years ago, I took a screenwriting class in college. I was cocky and thought that my script writing was better than anyone's in that class, especially since I was a film major. In that class, there was an older guy, probably in his late-20s. He had written a script that he obviously had spent a lot of time on. It took elements of "Star Wars" and science fiction, and what he wrote, in hindsight, was a decent script. When the class had to critique everyone's screenplay, his was one of the first. I raised my hand and volunteered my opinions about his script.
I was merciless and at times, cruel.
When it came time to review my script, most of the class was pretty fair and most actually liked it. When that guy took his turn, he trashed my script, and I deserved it. I should've used better constructed criticism, but being naive and young, I didn't. Had I had the maturity, I would've apologized to that guy. It taught me a lesson and that was when you critique someone's work, be fair and not cruel.
When it comes to Hollywood films and filmmakers, usually most critics will take the gloves off and pound away on bad movies. You'd think that after that screenwriting class incident, I'd be more forgiving and less harsh on a movie review. I guess I haven't grown up enough, because frankly, I thought "The Happening" was a mess from the opening titles. Hearing of its bad reviews before hand, I actually declined the invitation to review it because I knew I'd be merciless. A few days later, I got the envelope in the mail with a brand-new DVD of the film. Thanks Scott! (LOL--Scott's is my main contact at Click Communications for DVDs and Blu-ray discs).
Almost every filmmaker has made at least one turkey in their career. The public and critics will place filmmakers high on a pedestal if they so happen to make a really good movie. When those same directing darlings make a turkey that's overcooked in bad juices, the public stays away (usually), and the critics sharpen their pencils and write down bad movies on their Ten Worst Lists.
So here I am 20 years after that fateful evening in scriptwriting class. Our teacher, himself a failed screenwriter, hated every movie that came out, then would proceed to make the class go see such gems as "Everybody's All-American." Yes, 1988 was a crappy year for movies. I remember all too well the poor scriptwriter who sat in the back of the class and I trashed his script. I recall now how bad that guy must have felt. I recall feeling bad myself for being such a jerk. Normally, I'm one of the kindest people around and normally don't dish out dirt on someone's work. But when it came to movies, let the bashing begin, even with classmates at that time.
How do I, as a responsible adult and movie reviewer, grade Shyamalan's newest Shyamalan horror, mystery, suspense, whatever he makes up in his head movie, with fairness? On one level, since Shyamalan is a top paid writer/director/producer/sometimes actor, doesn't he deserve a fair review? On another level, since he's highly paid and should use all those mighty creative powers to make a good movie, he's fair game. Public figure, right? We yell at big bucks athletes when they fumble just before they reach the end zone, and we scream in bloody horror when a player bobbles a baseball during a crucial play. We complain about politicians being the most stupid people on Earth. Perhaps we're harsh on those people in high places because we think we can do a better job. Or perhaps because we expect them to perform because we pay good money to see them or keep them in office.
When it comes to the talent of Shyamalan, I'm not one of his ardent followers. I confess that I haven't seen all of his movies, mostly because I think they all feel the same, and that's just based on the previews. Same mysterious story element. Same production design. Same cloudy and moody landscapes with dead trees. Same cinematography. Same wild and supposedly unexpected ending that's supposed to blow you away. Same unexplained presence of Shyamalan trying to act. Every time I see his name or his face on the screen, my face smirks and I utter, "Who the hell does this guy think he is?"
To my cynical film eyes, he's a spoiled kid from a nice part of Philly who made it big in the movies. He comes off in interviews and in the movies as smug and a person who might think of himself as some kind of filmmaking genius. His name is splashed all over the credits like a bad Eddie Murphy directed movie. If Shyamalan made a number of brilliant movies films like Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg that still amaze you 30 years later, then I could probably look past his persona and enjoy the movies for what they are. But Shyamalan is different. His films feel and play like they come from a Shyamalan template. Sure, he made one huge hit movie, 1999's "The Sixth Sense." It was actually good until you figured it out (before the "mind-blowing" ending), then you realize that maybe it wasn't all that great to begin with.
I equate Shyamalan to certain bands or singers that you just don't like. It doesn't matter if you can't quite pinpoint the reason -- you just don't like them. For some people, they can't stand The Eagles or in my case, Sheryl Crow. Even if they produce something every once in a while that you deem very good, you mutter, "Eh, you got lucky." The same holds for me with when it comes to Shyamalan. I don't think he's all what some movie fans and critics have built up.
"The Happening," in the kindest of terms, is a bad movie. There is no way of going around this car crash. It's mangled and the build quality is shoddy, even by Yugo standards. You can't help but stare in awe and disbelief. You sit there wondering what happened before this movie crashed. Did Mark Wahlberg's agent call him up and say, "Mark! You thought 'Boogie Nights' changed your career? Wait till you see what Shyamalan's got for you!"
The movie begins with tremendously bad titles and music. It looks like some low budget straight-to-DVD movie. The audience is then thrust into the big mystery why people suddenly kill themselves all along the Eastern coast. Is it terrorists? Is it chemicals in the wind? Is it the trees? Is it the fact that these actors and extras were duped into being in a Shyamalan movie?
Wahlberg is a high school teacher whose wife (Zooey Deschanel) is cheating on him. His best buddy is a fellow teacher, John Leguizamo, who plays his part with quiet geekiness. Betty Buckley is a crazy old woman who lives in the countryside. I guess Adam Rich really did drive her crazy on "Eight is Enough." Suddenly when people start committing suicide by plunging hair pins in their necks, jumping off buildings, shooting themselves, and laying down on the green grass just as a giant lawnmower turns them into compost, you start realizing that something's wrong. Sounds like a date movie to me! It's Wahlberg who uses his superior science teaching skills to save everybody.
The acting in the movie, despite having a good cast, is dreadful. There's no connection between the characters and the acting is flat. I think that Zooey Deschanel is adorable and she was perfect for "Elf," but she's got that one big blue-eyed expression through this whole movie. She doesn't show one bit of emotion. Wahlberg is Wahlberg, showing that he can be a nice guy and not the Marky Mark street punk who got into acting to shed his image. He's very bland in the role of Elliot Moore. After seeing this film, I saw the Saturday Night Live clip of "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals" and nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Wahlberg has come a long way from those days of his rap image when I couldn't stand the guy. With his limited acting range, he can play the perfect jerk ("The Departed"), or play a sympathetic guy in the surprising, but uneven, "Boogie Nights." In this movie, he's unbelievable and walks around practically whispering his lines. It's almost as if he's trying to be too nice and it's killing him inside.
When I set out to write this DVD review, I honestly didn't think I'd write that much. But once I sat down to write, I couldn't help but step back in time to that screenwriting class. That critical side came out. I think that "The Happening" is a bad movie. For that, Mr. Shyamalan, I apologize if my criticism stings a bit. I'm sure you're a nice guy in person, and I'd never tear down your movie(s) in front of you. Maybe your next film will a whole lot better. As for "The Happening," well...
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.
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