M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, The Happening, is not merely bad. It is an astonishment, so idiotic in conception and inept in execution that, after seeing it, one almost wonders whether it was real or imagined. It's the kind of movie you want to laugh about with friends, swapping favorite moments of inanity: "Do you remember the part when Mark Wahlberg ... ?" "God, yes. And what about that scene where the wind ... ?"
The problem, of course, is that to have such a conversation, you'd normally have to see the movie, which I believe is an unreasonably high price to pay just to make fun of it. So rather than write a conventional review explaining why you should or shouldn't see The Happening (trust me, you shouldn't), I'm offering an alternative: A dozen and a half of the most mind-bendingly ridiculous elements of the film, which will enable you to marvel at its anti-genius without sacrificing (and I don't use that term lightly) 90 minutes of your life. As this is intended to be an alternative to seeing the actual film it is, of course, overflowing with spoilers. Those who still intend to see the film despite my warnings should probably stop reading now; those looking for a more typical review should stop by www.rottentomatoes.com and take their pick. For the rest, onward:
1. The single most absurd element of The Happening, the wellspring from which all other absurdities flow, is its conceit: Across the Northeastern United States, people are succumbing to a toxic airborne agent that makes them commit suicide, often gruesomely. At first it hits major population centers, followed by smaller towns, and on down to groups of even just a handful of people. Initially, it's assumed to be some kind of terrorist attack. But as we learn pretty early in the film, it's not. It's trees. Yes, the trees (and perhaps some bushes and grass, too, the movie's never too clear on this point) have tired of humankind's ecological despoilment and are emitting a complicated aerial neurotoxin that makes us kill ourselves en masse. I bet you wish you were the one who came up with this blockbuster idea.
2. A bad plot can be only so bad without a bad performance at the center of it, and star Mark Wahlberg delivers. As science teacher Elliot Moore, he is not merely unpersuasive, but dim, whiny, indecisive, and self-pitying. Given the amorphous nature of the threat--the villain, after all, is foliage--the movie needed its star to bring some energy, some empathy, some heroism, some something to the proceedings. Not happening. From the start, Wahlberg looks like he wants to tear off his sweater vest and launch into a Departed-style tirade of obscene invective that never comes.
3. John Leguizamo plays Julian, the Minority Best Friend, so it's easy to guess what will become of him in a high-body-count movie. Less easy to guess is that, in the midst of this deadly crisis, he will dump his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) on Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, whose luminous blue orbs are the best thing in the film), in order to drive to another state looking for his own wife. This is especially odd given that Julian has made it clear that he dislikes Alma and wants to keep Jess away from her, and everyone in the film has made a point of very clearly enunciating that Elliot and Alma have serious problems in their marriage.
4. The biggest problem, it is ultimately revealed, is that Alma had a dessert date with a male colleague named "Joey," who has since pestered her on her cell phone. At first it seems that "dessert" may be a euphemism, or was perhaps a prelude to a greater indiscretion. But no: This tiramisu was just tiramisu and, as such, a marital misdemeanor by most reckonings. That does not spare us from the tearful, guilt-ridden apology, however.
5. But enough about the boring interpersonal melodrama: On to the boring arboreal genocide! Each time the airborne toxin strikes, everyone ceases what they were doing and freezes in their tracks for a moment. It took several such episodes before I stopped anticipating that they'd commence tapping their feet in unison, as in the beginning of a big musical ensemble number.
6. Alas, there's no singing. But the methods of suicide chosen often seem chosen for their entertainment value, in particular: the man who meticulously starts an industrial mower and then lies down in front of it; the woman who wanders around a house methodically smashing her head through windows until she embeds enough glass in her skull to keel over; and, of course, the zoo lion keeper who invites his charges to bite off his arms so he can stand around, Black Knight-like, spraying blood from the stumps.
7. Elliot, Alma, and Jess flee from Philadelphia to a series of smaller towns and ultimately the rural countryside. This makes sense in the movie's nonsensical context--the nation's trees are somehow "targeting" big cities first and then smaller and smaller populations. But it seems more than a little unhinged that our heroes' response to the revelation that the trees are trying to kill them is to head into the forest.
8. Equally odd is their insistence, even though they've known from the beginning that the deadly nerve agent is airborne, on spending as much time as possible outdoors. When fleeing by car, they leave the windows rolled down; anytime they want to look at a map or discuss what to do next they get out of the car to do so. It never seems to occur to any of the protagonists that they should get inside somewhere and tape the windows and doors --even though this is the only strategy we've seen work for anyone else. Eighty minutes into a 90-minute movie, Alma and Jess are still sitting in a small guest house with all the doors and windows open. When Elliot, who's just watched someone fall victim to the toxin nearby screams, "Close the windows and the doors!" Alma innocently inquires "Why?"
9. Since the threat driving the movie is a colorless agent in the air, Shyamalan has nothing, really, to dramatize visually. He solves this by showing a strong wind every time the deadly agent appears. There are two problems with this: No matter how biochemically sophisticated the trees have become, it seems rather unlikely that they'd be able to control the weather. And, insofar as wind could represent anything in the context of the movie, it would be hope, not danger, as strong winds would disperse the airborne toxin rather than, as Shyamalan somehow imagines, intensify it. Still, we gets leaves blowing every time people are going to die, and a hilarious scene where Elliot et al. are running across a field trying to outrace the wind. It's like the climax of Twister, without the twister.