Believe it or not, I find “The Happening” to be hilarious. M. Knight Shyamalan’s tree terror film is a wonder to behold for the batshit insane way the characters behave, even when they’re not gassed by whatever the trees are suddenly emitting to make people go cuckoo-bananas.
The movie begins with two equally odd things, people stopping en mass in a park and Mark Wahlberg teaching a science class. How are the two things connected? The mystery of the disappearing bees and a handsome young student who gives us the film’s thesis, “things just happen and we can’t explain them.” Although Wahlberg’s character is intended to be a believer in the physical world, he seems to immediately side with the student’s more mystical appraisal.
Oh, I forgot to mention the construction workers leaping to their deaths. It’s supposed to be gripping and suspenseful, but by the third one, you can’t help but start singing “It’s Raining Men.”
Back at Wahlberg’s school, the teachers (which include John Leguizamo) have a pow-wow to discuss the mass suicides in the city and decide to suspend classes for the day. He runs home to his wife, played by Zooey Deschanel. She’s introduced in the greatest shot of the film, staring, mouth agape, at the news reports.
It would already seem she were effected if not for the fact she continues to follow Wahlberg across the Northeast. Getting her out of her daze, Wahlberg — that is to say Elliot — announces Leguizamo’s character has tickets for them to leave the city.
I don’t recall why this choice is made, but they all meet up at the train station and it looks as though Deschanel … er, Alma … is ready to abandon the group. Instead, they all get aboard minus Leguizamo’s wife. The plan is to meet up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. On the way there, though, the train stops because they’ve lost all radio contact with the major stations up the line. The passengers disperse and find other ways of getting to presumed safety. Leguizamo — note I’m not naming him — leaves his daughter behind with Elliot and Alma in order to look for his wife in Princeton, New Jersey.
The newly formed trio hitch a ride with a local nursery owner who gives Elliot the idea that plant life might be behind it as some already release chemicals to ward off predators. Man, the most dangerous predator of all, can only be defeated if the self-preservation system gets shut off. Or so the theory goes.
From here, we get to see this notion in action as the group meet up with other people fleeing infected cities. The plants, it seems, are attacking smaller and smaller groups of people. At this point, we get to see the nursery man lose it, hear a girl jump out of a window over a telephone, and witness a kindly army man lose his shit and kill his subgroup of people. (He was actually endearing for his unusual curse, “Cheese and Crackers!”)
Elliot, now lugging Alma, the daughter, and two young boys, make their way to a model home to regroup. After a scene that feels like it’s about to become the “nuke the fridge” sequence, they move on, only to watch a man lay down in front of a ride-on lawnmower. (It is the moment that demands “Yakmala! to be shouted.) The boys are killed off at the next house they visit via a couple of shotgun blasts. I suppose Shyamalan means this to be a gripping moment, but the kids barely mean anything to us and their deaths are just way too over the top to be anything but comical.
Oh, I forgot to mention what happened to Leguizamo. He was ejected from a car and slit his wrists with a shard from the windshield.
At last, the surviving trio find their way to the home of a shut-in who, at first, seems kindly … but really lives in crazy town. She accuses Elliot of trying to steal something before going out into the garden, getting infected, and smashing though the windows in order to give Elliot some of the toxin. Like the other scenes of tension, it just comes off silly. Here, it seems Shyamalan wanted to have a zombie beat.
Anyway, with the wind kicking up something fierce, Elliot decides to walk out into the field and kiss Alma and the daughter goodbye. They were out in an old structure used to hide escaping slaves. When the group hug each other, they find the wind has not inspired them to kill themselves. The Happening, it seems, is over.
Cut to sometime later. Elliot and Alma escort the daughter to her first day of school as everything has slowly returned to normal. Alma is pregnant and Elliot is willing to accept that the mass suicides cannot be explained.
Then it starts in France.
So why is this film so funny? None of the deaths scare you. This film is played completely serious, no matter what some might think, and therefore each death is supposed to unsettle you. It’s meant to be utterly believable to have the quiet normalcy of the afternoon shattered by the sudden appearance of death. Instead, something in the staging, earnestness, and overall tone of the death scenes lead to howls of laughter. A mass suicide involving a gun should be intense, but offers only the chance to quip, “Happiness is a warm gun.”
Beyond that, there’s Zooey Deschanel’s performance and character. She always seems in a haze and always appears to undermine Elliot’s thinking. Is it misogyny on display? Perhaps. It could also be an actress lost in a part without a paddle or a map.
To steal Justin’s “Guilty Party” for a moment, I have to blame Shyamalan for the major flaws here. Actors have to make choices. Deschanel chose “dazed.” Wahlberg chose “higher-pitched me.” It’s the responsibility of the director to correct those choices. Here, the man driving the bus was more concerned with death scenes than the protagonists.
And if we don’t like them … well …
But at the same time, he’s also responsible for the earnest tone of the film. It is, in fact, Shyamalan’s only tone for films. They’re all dead serious in their presentation, even in the face of absurd concepts. This could work, but he’s lost the trust of the audience. That leads to laughs as tricks we once found innovative come off cliched. On the eve of release, he claimed the movie was a “good B-Movie,” but the film itself does not support that level of awareness.
Instead, we get an enjoyable film, just not the sort of enjoyment the filmmakers intended. Therefore, a worthy addition to the Yakmala Hall of Fame.