Saturday, June 28, 2008

Shyamalan's Folly

"I forgot where I am," mutters a confused woman seated on a bench in Central Park. After pausing a moment to stare blankly into space, she pulls a hair stick from her neatly styled coiffure and plunges it into her neck. So begins The Happening, the latest offering from M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us such nail-biting shockers as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. The remainder of the film not only induces the viewer to forget where they are, but also gives us plenty of reasons to follow said lady's example.

The story follows Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a Philadelphia high school science teacher who evacuates the city after learning about a wave of mass suicides sweeps through the Northeast. The cause is at first thought to be a terrorist attack, but this suspicion is soon debunked when no evidence of such can be uncovered. Joining Elliott by train are his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend and colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Soon their train grinds to a halt, leaving the four of them to press on by car. After Julian separates from the group to find his wife, the rest wind up on foot. As each subsequent means of transportation becomes slower (much like the pace) and more primitive than the last, doom draws nearer. Shyamalan had to have patted himself on the back for coming up with that stroke of plotting.

Now comes the all-important question: to spoil or not to spoil? In the interest of civilized conduct, I'll refrain from revealing the not so jaw-dropping twist at the end. I will say, however, that the method by which the threat is alleviated hardly amounts to an exciting conclusion. Instead we get buildup, boredom, more buildup...and no payoff. At least in Signs, a far superior film, the bad guys assumed physical, tangible forms. This motivated the good guys to discover an effective means of defeating the bad guys once and for all. Here, the good guys (and gals) don't win. They just walk away unscathed.

There are films in the suspense category that feature no final battle (much less victory) between good and evil, that still reward the audience nonetheless. Even the elite among film aficionados would be remiss to call The Birds a misfire. While not a perfect film, it has to its advantage the ability to sustain our emotional investment in the characters -- and with it our attention. What's missing in The Happening is good, old suspense. The key to striking terror in the heart of the audience, Hitchcock said, is to portray the ordinary as frightening. A single viewing of the shower scene from Psycho confirms that the Master of Suspense practiced what he preached. Shyamalan's folly lies not in making the ordinary seem frightening, but in the making the ordinary seem...well...ordinary. Any film that purports to be even somewhat scary must instill the fear that danger can strike the characters at any given moment, and without warning. The Happening fails to convey that sense.

Regarding the performances, allow me to paraphrase the closing credits of Frankenstein. If a good cast is worth repeating and a bad cast is worth forgetting, then a good cast in bad roles deserves some credit. John Leguizamo's talents are wasted on a frenetic, one-level character with a pittance of screen time. In spite of his best efforts to find variations, his work comes off as your basic frazzled performance. In the role of Alma, Zooey Deschanel mugs her way through the movie with a facial expression that oscillates in resemblance between a constipated frog and a spoiled brat seconds from crying. Like Leguizamo, she outdoes her best to find a musical range beyond do-re-mi, but to no avail. Perhaps her best takes were left on the cutting room floor in a spiteful act of sabotage. Contrarily, old pro Betty Buckley shines in a brief, creepy role as a mysterious woman who offers food and shelter to the fleeing group.

In the roles of the children, Ashlyn Sanchez, Spencer Breslin, and Robert Bailey, Jr. supply the film with some of its more honest moments. By virtue of the fact that younger performers have less experience to draw from than their adult counterparts, gifted child actors never fail to astonish. Eliciting golden moments from children is arguably Shyamalan's strongest suit. When the kids are more resilient than the adult characters, however, something is dreadfully wrong with the story. It should here be noted that Shyamalan commits the unforgivable sin of subjecting not one, but two children to a needless act of violence.

Ever since his impressive turn in Boogie Nights eleven years ago, Mr. Wahlberg has proven himself a capable leading man on more than one occasion. Like Will Smith and Frank Sinatra, he has made a seamless transition to movies from a career in music. If he plays his cards right, there just might be an Oscar in his future. Having said that, his performance in The Happening is not among his finest. The problem here lies in his inability to play intelligence. He doesn't have that worldly, well-read look about him, like Tom Hanks, Gregory Peck, or Sidney Poitier. Wahlberg is at his best when playing men of action who aren't afraid to meet a challenge -- but not before making a few well-timed wisecracks. Sgt. Dignam may not have been a Rhodes scholar, but at least he was prepared to accomplish his mission in The Departed. Obviously, Shyamalan has failed to realize that casting an actor like Mark Wahlberg as a wimpy science teacher can be just as fatal as casting Clifton Webb as Stanley Kowalski.

What is one to make of M. Night Shyamalan's career at this point? Several critics, among whom I count myself, have voiced the opinion that The Happening represents the continuation of his downward spiral. As I recently wrote in a letter to a friend, I'm not quite ready to dismiss him as a one-trick pony. What Night needs is a hit movie to break him out of his slump and get him back into his creative hot zone.

Here are a few suggestions he can take to improve his movies: 1) He needs to broaden his exposure. If Shyamalan expects to grow as an artist, he must break out of his supernatural comfort zone. While it is admirable that he writes and directs all of his movies as a true auteur would, the man is no Ingmar Bergman. Sometimes an artist needs to paint out of canvas to create his best work. Why couldn't he surprise us with a western? Or a romantic drama? Or a sprawling historical epic? That would be a welcome change of pace. When he ventures into unknown territory, he may very well tap gifts he never knew he had. Case in point: before The Bridges of Madison County was adapted for the screen, no one could have guessed that the star of Dirty Harry would lovingly realize Robert James Waller's novel. 2) Perhaps it's time for Shyamalan to hire a screenwriter. The delegation of this duty will no doubt free him up to focus on character development, visual style, and action sequences. Besides, his ear for good dialogue is getting rusty. 3) If Mr. Shyamalan insists on retaining screenwriting credit, he should seriously consider selling the Philadelphia estate where he writes his scripts. The best writers can testify that right working environment can make all the difference in the world. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his best novels at his beach house in Acapulco. Eugene O'Neill wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning plays at his stately mansions in California, Connecticut, and Georgia. J.K. Rowling birthed most of the Harry Potter books while riding on a train. Given the right guidance, Night will find the right property where inspiration can strike him.

The Happening takes the unconventional approach for a scary movie, and fails for that very reason. Without seeming formulaic, sometimes movies turn out best when they stick to what works. In omitting suspense, the one ingredient necessary for films of this genre to succeed, M. Night Shyamalan has left us with a dish blander than pancakes without maple syrup. For viewers expecting a traditional, reliable suspense film that pulls you to the edge of your seat, The Happening will bitterly disappoint.

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