You know those meringue cookies that look so tempting on bakery shelves, the ones that evaporate moments after you pop them in your mouth and leave only the vaguest, unmemorable taste behind?
That's “The Happening.”
It's neither dull nor stimulating, neither off-putting nor engaging. It's gratuitously violent in a few spots; writer-director M. Night Shyamalan wanted an R rating, though the film would have worked just as well without one. Yet as irritating as those are, they pass by quickly and leave us adrift again in the Sea of Blah.
The film isn't even suspenseful, which has been his stock in trade for a decade. It reveals its “secret” early, sticks with that explanation and follows plodding thriller conventions down to the “uh-oh” coda. Though it's handsomely shot by Tak Fujimoto, passably acted some of the time and reasonably paced, it remains a non-experience that evaporates in memory.
You find out right away that a toxic airborne chemical is making people kill themselves en masse in the northeastern United States. Likely possibilities, such as a terrorist attack or a nuclear accident, are soon swept aside. Shyamalan hits us with his improbable revelation a third of the way through the film; after that, we watch characters amble around trying not to contract a suicidal urge.
The most significant of these are high school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). They flee infected Philadelphia with a fellow teacher (John Leguizamo), who entrusts them with his 8-year-old daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) when he goes off in search of his missing wife.
The Moores and the girl spend the rest of the film walking tremulously through ominous fields and woods, coping with a bitter recluse whose house they occupy for a night (the wonderful Betty Buckley) and trying not to die. Yet the emotional temperature never rises, because none of the three seems terrified by what's happening.
Death comes arbitrarily, even ludicrously, to so many undeveloped characters that it swiftly loses its impact. It's hard to be horrified when a man calmly turns on a riding mower, walks around in front of it and lies down peacefully, waiting for it to grind him up. (Shyamalan must think that the R, his first such rating, will establish his credentials with hard-core horror fans. It won't – there isn't enough gore for them – and why would he want their praise? Unneeded violence is the first warning sign that a filmmaker's imagination has failed.)
The haphazard storytelling costs Shyamalan credibility. The power behind the deaths behaves inconsistently, and the Hitchcockian atmosphere breaks down over and over. We're left with spooky set pieces that don't connect or build tension, plus dialogue that's meant to invoke a sense of love and aching loss but plops awkwardly from the lips of the lackluster leads.
Perhaps Shyamalan should switch gears and adapt some familiar book or play, so both he and we can stop worrying about surprises that need to be sprung: A picture that depends entirely on shock value flops utterly if it fails to shock.
His early films, “Praying With Anger” and “Wide Awake,” were coming-of-age stories with no supernatural edge. If he still has the ability to explore a character-driven story, even one with a “Sixth Sense” twist, let him show it.
In one respect, however, “The Happening” is his most appealing film: He shows up only as a faint voice on one cell-phone call. After his egomaniacal appearance in “Lady in the Water,” such restraint is greatly appreciated.