A Trip Back To: The Happening (2008)

By Christian DiMartino

“Cheese and crackers!”

Recent Emmy winner Jeremy Strong (Succession) is the one who has the misfortune of uttering this exclamation in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Strong plays one Private Auster, who, under M. Night’s direction, almost acts as if he’s on the spectrum. Anyways, upon finding out that the next town over has a road with a bunch of dead bodies lying in it, Private Auster replies with, “cheese and crackers,” as if this is a Saturday morning cartoon.

This… is one of the many problems with The Happening.

Until last week, this was my first viewing of The Happening in about 13 years, and the only reason why I revisited it was in preparation for M. Night’s Old. That, and because over the years the movie has developed a following of the sorts. Not because it’s good, per se, but because it’s pretty laughably bad. My mother and I saw this in theatres when I was about 11 (as I might have mentioned, I wasn’t a normal child), because at the time, most of us arrived to an M. Night movie with anticipation… anticipation which came to an end with this movie, and didn’t really return until… I’d say The Visit, but most would say Split. I vaguely remember giggling at the silliness, but my mother and I both agreed that the movie felt pretty pointless. Though when hearing people discuss it as years have gone by, it’s definitely easy to see the hilarity, hence why the need to return to it was there.

So I recently saw Old (and reviewed it, if you’re curious), and honestly, I kind of like it. Yet I’ll say that it has both the traits of M. Night’s best work, and M. Night’s worst. In terms of where the movie works, it’s creepy and effective, and the ideas are pretty large and interesting. In terms of it being at his worst, the screenplay is kind of awful, sinking the actors around him (for example, remember how fabulous Vicky Krieps was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread? Not her fault, but the material doesn’t always help her in Old). The Happening is M. Night at his worst on both counts. The film is like a symphony of terrible, in that the writing is bad, which causes the direction to be bad, which further causes the acting to be bad. Yet the film is also creatively bankrupt- a thin idea in search of a movie… but in terms of entertainment, he does make up for it by making it unintentionally hilarious.

Mark Wahlberg gives a performance that Razzies are made for as Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher who gives an entire performance as if he’s on a Saturday morning special (which also, oddly, ties back to the “cheese and crackers!”). Elliot is married to Alma (Zooey Deschanel), but their marriage is a smidge rocky (she had tiramisu with a guy after work, and he won’t leave her alone… yes, it’s a subplot). They’re front and center in The Happening, and are forced to run for their lives when the unthinkable and unexplainable happens.

As the film opens, everyone in Central Park freezes, as if Charles Xavier is stopping to have a one-on-one with someone, and one woman kills herself, followed by another. Cut to another city, and surely enough, it’s raining men (hallelujah?) as a group of people are just falling off a building. Cut back to Wahlberg and Co., and like the rest of us, nobody knows what to make of this. “It’s a terrorist attack!” they say. So everyone begins fleeing for their lives to get away from whatever is… “happening.” Ah yes, the film definitely tries to make its title work, simply because everyone keeps saying the word, “happening.” There’s something happening here, but what it is… ain’t exactly clear. Though from they gather, some toxin is causing it. Deschanel pretty much catches onto it fast, in one of the film’s many weird line deliveries: “It makes you kill yourself. Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil that can be invented.” Terrible line? Yes, but somehow weirder delivery, in that she is almost smirking as she says something so dark. Wahlberg gets a lot of flack for this role, as he should (“What? Nooooo”) but Deschanel, who I treasure, just might be worse. It feels like every time the camera cuts to her, her performance resembles that of a mannequin. Not to mention, her delivery is pretty similar to the way she delivers that atrocious line.

So anyways, the two of them, as well as a fellow friend (John Leguizamo) flee the city in order to escape… whatever it is. And… that’s it. That’s the movie. Mind you, there are some pretty goofily interesting set pieces along the way, but… that’s it. So, I’ll first start by saying that Shyamalan kind of shot himself in the foot early on. The Sixth Sense was a phenomenon, no question, but after delivering a wallop of a twist like that, he felt the need to with every movie after that. Once you do it every time, we expect it. About halfway through The Happening, we’re told that the toxin that is causing these suicides is in plants. And… that’s it. That is the only form of a twist we have- something in the wind, caused by plants, is causing mass suicide. Yet the film does literally nothing to keep you guessing, nothing to keep you engaged, besides the fact that two fine actors giving terrible performances might off themselves before the movie is done. I kid you not.

So, I have a theory as to what exactly happened with this movie, so hear me out. 20th Century Fox wanted in on the Shyamalan business, so they asked him to write them something. So in need of an idea, he got really high. This, honestly, would make sense. I mean, the way the characters interact, all the talk about food. Oh yeah, there’s another scene where one of the weirdos Alma and Elliot hitch a ride with has this extended talk about how much he loves hot dogs- even after the subject has moved past hot dogs, he brings up the hot dogs again. Anyways, he got really high, and didn’t remember writing the script, but he supposedly finished it, turned it in, and made sure that nobody could read it until filming started.

In my eyes, the biggest issue with The Happening lies in the fact that M. Night had an idea that was indeed disturbing, but it is pretty much never really developed. He was basically relying on the fact that people mysteriously killing themselves is chilling. Which it would be, if it weren’t so damn hilarious at times. Yet it isn’t enough for a feature length movie- it would suffice for 35 minutes, tops. There are obstacles along the way of Elliot and Alma’s journey, such as a stop at a nutbag old lady’s house, but the film runs out of gas early, in the creative department.

In the entertainment department, however, the movie is consistent. Make no mistake: barely any of The Happening is good, but it’s all pretty interestingly terrible. In terms of M. Night’s biggest blunders, I’d sit through this over The Last Airbender and After Earth any day. The Happening is an awful movie, to be sure, and for a number of reasons. Yet if you can find the humor in it, it’s an absolute, unintentional hoot.

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