Remember that TV commercial with the punch line, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature?" M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" is a glorified revamp of that old joke, except this time it's no joke. You were maybe expecting a laughfest from the auteur of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs"?
The film opens chillingly. A lazy New York afternoon suddenly goes haywire as people in Central Park inexplicably freeze in their tracks and then kill themselves, while construction workers fall headlong from rooftops. The survival instinct has mysteriously been overridden in these people by – what? A terrorist toxin? A top-secret military experiment gone horribly wrong?
Every Shyamalan movie has its Everyman. Here it's Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), who lectures his class on the puzzling recent diminishment of the honeybee population. This phenomenon is a sure sign – or should I say, Sign – that something's screwy in the ether.
Elliot is also puzzled about the diminishment of affection in his marriage to Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who doesn't need an airborne chemical toxin or bacterial outbreak – or whatever the blazes it is – to feel jumpy. She's already deep in manic mode when danger strikes. Fearing an outbreak in the City of Brotherly Love, she and Elliot, along with high school math teacher and friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his eight-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), head for the Pennsylvania farmlands. When the boonies turn out to be as unsafe as the cities, the terrorist theory starts to crumble. Why would jihadists want to incinerate Filbert, Pa.?
This is not one of those Shyamalan movies that sets you up for a surprise ending, although it might have been better if it did. I kept trying to figure out if there were encoded switcheroos in the plot. Is "Filbert" a secret code for something? Is Julian's wife trapped in Princeton, N.J., because that's where Einstein was once ensconced? If the human drama was more compelling I wouldn't have been thinking these thoughts.
Shyamalan was obviously going for a lean, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-style '50s-ish thriller here. (It runs about 90 minutes and feels longer.) But the film, which covers 36 hours, is confusingly structured. It's never clear, for example, which areas of the Northeast are affected – the rest of the country is unharmed – or why the knocked-out cellphone and TV and radio reception suddenly snap to life whenever it's convenient for the plot. It's also not clear if certain scenes, such as those involving a gonzo horticulturist or a bonkers hermit (Betty Buckley) are meant to be funny, or funny-scary.
Even in a misfire like "The Happening," Shyamalan has a fine feeling for dread. He knows how to creep you out. But he has a tin ear for acting. This is especially damaging to the Elliot/Alma love story, which is intended as the movie's heart and soul. Normally a charming performer, Deschanel comes across as a wide-eyed whiner, while Wahlberg, always best playing misfits, overdoes the oh-my-gosh innocence.
It's also a bit sneaky of Shyamalan to set us up for a paranoid 9/11 thriller and then go all Greenpeace on us. He's trying to be socially conscious but he doesn't have the reformist's temperament. He has the temperament of a self-infatuated messiah. In Filbert, Pa., though, I suspect that infatuation won't fly. Grade: C (Rated R for violent and disturbing images.)