As a dumb B-movie intended to give you the creeps, the jumps and the mocking laugh attacks at its dumbness, The Happening gets two somewhat unenthusiastic thumbs up.
But if taken as a serious, morally instructive, creepy thriller—as appears to be the intention of its director, M Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Lady in the Water)—the cheery gesture requires a slight modification. One need only take those inverted thumbs and plunge them into one's own eyes. Rip past the retinas, explode the eyeballs' fluid and search for the soft tissue of the brain in an effort to end one's life as soon as possible.
This is precisely the sort of thing that the characters in The Happening do. Why? Let's not spoil the "oh, OK"-inducing surprise of why. Suffice it to say that in The Happening's opening scenes some sort of mysterious "event" is spreading across the northeastern United States on the rustling breeze, causing people to off themselves in highly inventive ways. Their means include chopsticks, a lion, a lawnmower and 9.11-referencing plunges from New York skyscrapers.
Our protagonist is Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a Philadelphia high school science teacher who is interrupted—coincidentally as his lesson crescendos into an impassioned pseudo-science sermon about how the disappearance of the world's honeybees is beyond scientific understanding—to be told that classes are to be canceled because a terrorist attack and/or mysterious, scientifically inexplicable "happening" is causing humans to drop like suicidal bees.
Elliot thus gathers his not-very-funky bunch—his weirdly zombie-like wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his boring best friend, Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's adorable automaton of a daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and heads for the Pennsylvanian countryside to avoid the airborne plague. He doesn't, of course and, worse still, he finds the only thing that scares Al Gore-loving urban elites more than The Revenge of Gaia: paranoid, shotgun-wielding country folk.
The breeze keeps blowing from there but alas, it never catches the sails of decent drama. This is primarily because Shyamalan writes terrible dialogue and, as a result, the mediocre actors he has enlisted come off as downright atrocious. How can Wahlberg be expected to feel the vibrations when he's saying, "Look, a house!" to a bunch of people staring at a giant mansion? There are advantages to this bad dialogue: for instance, some funny B-movie moments such as when a soldier—seemingly taking a cue from Rumsfeld—exclaims, "Cheese and crackers!" at the world's impending doom.
Still, it's a shame to see the premise squandered—and Shyamalan's talents so rapidly evaporating—all for the sake of a few cheap laughs and a couple of scares.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
With Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez and Betty Buckley
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14, 91 min.,R