Smile Politely

Plants Gone Bad: Takin’ Back the Planet

What amazes me about M. Night Shyamalan is he seems to have friends. How else would he get such talented actors like John Leguizamo, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in one film? They certainly can’t be signing on because of the integrity of the project. And I don’t believe Shyamalan has enough money to coerce them into ruining their careers in one foul swoop. Maybe outside of his whiney press releases, where the writer/director/producer complains how Disney dumped him and explains away the bad reviews for his films as a failure to realize the “scope of his visions,” he redeems his name by throwing good parties. He probably spends hours telling his guests hilariously improbably stories, leaving his guests rolling, and in turn, mistakenly giving him the idea that these ridiculous premises could make good movies. If that’s the case, please, someone, direct Mr. Shyamalan into making comedies.

Now, I’ll admit, I actually liked Shyamalan once upon a time. I probably liked him longer than most people, but don’t let that be a black mark on my record. I liked the director’s first three films, and have a soft spot for Signs, which largely received positive reviews. I had high hopes for this director. I think that’s the problem with most critics — we saw there was promise in this filmmaker and we let him dupe us not once, but several times.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

It was The Village that proved to be the worst blow for me. Coming fresh off a film that I whole-heartedly enjoyed, The Village was an idea with a lot of promise, which Shyamalan ultimately ruined. The movie is so anti-climactic and chock-full of ridiculousness, I felt as if I’d been betrayed for sticking up for the director.

Lady in the Water wasn’t quite the same degree of awfulness, but set the new taste of the filmmaker in my mouth. In short, where in slim instances he seemed capable of concocting good ‘ideas,’ for the most part, he had lost his mind.

The new tradition of unspeakable awfulness continues in the slick vague title of his latest movie, The Happening. Mark Wahlberg stars as Elliot, a science teacher who is in the middle of a rough patch with his wife, Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel. Wahlberg fights to be more charismatic than the rest of the actors Shyamalan has beaten down with dullness, but verges on hokey. I’ve come to believe Shyamalan honestly doesn’t know how people behave in the real world, thus the zombies and flighty types in his mind are transferred to his actors. The only survivor to the director’s poor coaching in this film is John Leguizamo, who is saved by less screen time.

In The Happening, an airborne plague is causing individuals from city to city to commit suicide in mass populations. The media is quick to label the phenomenon a terrorist attack, but a hippie farmer in a small town identifies the problem as a toxin released by plants to virtually wipe out humans, who they perceive as a threat. That’s right, the plants are taking back the planet, yo.

The real hilarity begins when the following line is uttered: “Let’s just stay ahead of the wind!” As can be expected, improbabilities are stacked upon improbabilities here. But the worst part of the film is how it contradicts itself. One minute, the ridiculous plot is at least coherent, and the next, it’s not following its own rules. It seems Shyamalan was sitting in his little director’s chair and scowled at anyone who dare question his film’s logic — the plot must go on! And so much running ensues, to beat the toxic spore-bearing wind, people die, and really none of it is exciting, scary or involving. I am happy to say I did have a few laughs during the film, at its own expense, of course.

Unfortunately, the film’s camp is too muddled by low-key acting to be a real hoot. There are moments, though, like the old-timey phrases shouted inexplicably by people who I assume are living in the present century, like, “Be ready in a jiffy!” Dialogue like this may work for good writers like Stephen King, but in the hands of a lesser person, they come off as being written by someone who watches too much Andy Griffith. The quirkiness in the film had promise, but fell into the crater-sized plot holes riddled throughout the movie. The hippie gardener, for instance, had an affinity to hot dogs, and packed up nothing but the franks and mustard before fleeing town. It’s a funny anecdote with no real payoff, as we later see him munching on a hot dog, but there’s no punch line. Why hot dogs? What does this do to help further the plot? The running gag is dead before lift-off. Textbook issues from a director who has made enough movies to work out the kinks by now.

There is more than one moment in the film where we are supposed to feel horrified or unsettled because of someone’s death. More often than not, the resulting reaction is indifference or amusement. Characters are created and named with the sole purpose in dying violently in the following scene. And some of the deaths we witness are so completely unrealistic in their execution — there is no horror, only confusion, to be felt afterwards, which makes way for hysterical laughter.

Zooey Deschanel utters a classic line in The Happening that encompasses all of Shyamalan’s main characters from each of his films: “I don’t like to show my emotions.” It seems he is now forcing his characters to make excuses for their lack of personality. Or maybe the filmmaker himself is speaking through his characters. If film is an expression of the director’s emotions, then Shyamalan is about as bland as a piece of stale bread. The expiration on this loaf expired years ago.

The Happening is now playing at the Beverly and Savoy 16
Runtime: 1h 31min — Rated R — Drama/Scifi/Fantasy

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