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Look, up in the sky! A bad movie!

POSTED: July 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/Twentieth Century Fox

New York city residents try to find an explanation for mysterious deaths in "The Happening." Ashlyn Sanchez, John Leguizamo and Mark Wahlberg, from left, are three characters who are searching for answers.

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M. Night Shyamalan's new thriller, "The Happening," is the funniest movie I've seen all year. If only the director were in on the joke.

This seems to be Shyamalan's attempt to make us more scared and paranoid than he ever has, but it's simply an embarrassingly bad movie.

During a normal, sunny day in New York City, masses of people suddenly stop whatever they were doing and enter a trancelike state. As in the 1960 classic "Village of the Damned" (and all of its copycats), some invisible, nonhuman attacker strikes everyone instantly.

Only, rather than just falling down dead or slipping into a coma, all the people kill themselves. A woman pulls a pin from her hair and stabs her own neck. A police officer unholsters his gun and shoots himself, then one by one people pick up the gun and do the same. Construction workers walk off the top floor of a building like lemmings sleepwalking over a cliff.

This is all meant to shock us, but I couldn't help but laugh because it's all presented so poorly. "The Happening" doesn't let the events speak for themselves. Throughout the film, Shyamalan insists on showing us close-ups of characters reacting to the suicides. And they say things like, "Mother of God!"

This melodrama and bad writing are straight out of a Charlton Heston disaster movie, and I wish I could say it was as much fun as a campy cult film.

So this mysterious plague of silly deaths spreads rapidly, and we follow Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and their friend's daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) as they struggle to escape from a bad story concept. I mean, as they struggle to elude the sweeping epidemic.

Wahlberg, Deschanel and co-star John Leguizamo all practically pull muscles trying to make this movie work, but you simply can't compensate for an idea that is absurd even among science fiction films or for dialogue that would make even Arnold Schwartzenegger ask, "You vant me to say vot?" And this extra effort only makes things worse. The whole cast is likely to look back on this as a career worst.

I suppressed my laughter out of respect for my fellow moviegoers, but the whole thing culminates in a scene that screams out for parody. I fully expect a YouTube video to appear within the next couple of weeks. It's so unintentionally funny I'm tempted to recommend the movie so you can all see it. But then, we'd be sending the wrong message to Mr. Night, now, wouldn't we.

In a way, this is sad, because Shyamalan is a capable filmmaker who seems to have lost his way. "The Sixth Sense" was a promising debut, and at best his films since have been "interesting," which is merely a polite way of saying a film is mediocre.

But in case you're feeling too bad for the former wunderkind, the final insult to viewers of "The Happening" is a clumsy environmental message Shyamalan crams down our throats in the film's final act. Without further spoiling this already rotten movie, it borrows from Hitchcock's "The Birds" by showing nature unleashing its wrath against us eco-killing humans.

"The Incredible Hulk" was playing in the adjacent theater, and I wanted so badly for the big green monster to crash through the wall and make things more exciting. But alas, it didn't happen.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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