5/31/08

R065 The Happening

(2008, Horror-ish/Political-esque, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

We’re already deep into Monty Python territory here.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:


Mr. Shyamalan believes we all deserve to die in the most comically horrific way possible.

Summary:

Sadly, not M. Night's remake of Carmaggedon.The wind blows in New York. Everyone stops. A few people start to walk backwards. A young woman stabs herself in the neck with a knitting needle while a cop shoots himself in the head. Construction workers drop from an uncompleted building like overripe apples in a windstorm.

A vice principal interrupts the class of an overly goofy science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) with news of the incident. Everyone evacuates the city in an unhurried, casual sort of way. The science teacher and his estranged wife (Zooey Deschanel), loquacious friend (John Leguizamo) and loquacious friend’s daughter flee nonchalantly by train until it stops in a small town because they’ve “lost contact”. “With who?” Wahlberg asks. “Everyone,” comes the reply.

At the small town’s diner, newscasts and gruesomely comic cell phone videos indicate that large groups of people have become suicidal all across the northeastern United States. The power goes out. This seems to be reason enough for the first and only real panic scene of the movie, as everyone quickly and efficiently divides into small car-sized groups and motors the hell out of there. Wahlberg and Deschanel end up with Leguizamo’s daughter, while Lequizamo heads to New Jersey to look for his wife. He dies a hideous self-inflicted death just a few scenes later.

Our surviving protagonists end up with a guy I’ll call Crazy Hot Dog Man, who opines that after years of abuse, the plants have ganged up on humankind to emit a toxin that shuts down human survival instincts. Despite his wandering, off-center eye, and the fact that everything he says—including the preceding—is incoherent nonsense even by this movie’s standards, his theory is accepted as gospel by every other character thereafter, including the ones who never come into contact with him.

Soon they arrive at a place where the road has become impassable with the bodies of plant-assisted suicide victims. They turn back and meet a number of other motorists at a crossroads, each reporting the same thing about the roads in every other direction. Under the direction of a confused army private, they divide into two groups and hike cross country, away from the roads. The wind blows. The private walks a few steps backwards, shouts some nonsense, and then shoots himself in the head. Plant-addled suicide enthusiasts queue up behind him to take turns with his pistol when he’s done.

No plot visible in any direction.Wahlberg’s group hears the repeated shots from the other side of the hill, and for some reason they turn to him for direction. After several minutes of blind stammering panic, he somehow figures out that the toxin releases when the local foliage detects large groups of humans together, so he advises them to split up and try to stay away from other people. Then he takes his wife, his friend’s daughter and a couple of teenage boys and runs in a randomly chosen direction.

Several scenes pass, during which they pit stop in a model home, watch a man throw himself under a riding mower, and flee from another plant-induced suicide frenzy past a billboard that rather unsubtly states “You deserve this!” A paranoid old coot in a backwoods garbage house murders the two teenage boys with a shotgun, sending Wahlberg and his family fleeing even further into the wilderness. Apparently unmoved by their first insane hillbilly encounter, they stay the night with a crazy old woman who alternately welcomes and shrieks at them.

Next morning the wind kicks up while the woman putters in her garden. She stops, walks backwards a few steps, and then starts smashing her face through the windowpanes. Wahlberg flees deeper into the house while his wife and friend’s daughter shut themselves in a cabin out back. There’s a speaking tube that runs from the cabin to the house, so Wahlberg and Deschanel settle their marital differences and renew their love. Then, figuring that they’re all about to die anyway, they emerge from their hiding places to meet in the middle of a windy field to die together. Nothing happens, as a subsequent newscast lets us know that the plants had stopped emitting suicide toxins exactly one minute earlier.

Three months later, Deschanel and Wahlberg return to civilization to raise their friend’s daughter as their own. The lengthy and largely irrelevant denouement includes dropping the daughter at the school bus stop, news of Deschanel’s pregnancy, and the reemergence of the suicide toxin in France.

Thoughts:

It's the same characters and location as the last shot, because that's pretty much all there is to choose from.One of the ways I can tell that a Rifftrax is really good is by the number of times my wife gets mad at me for laughing too loudly after we’ve put the kids to sleep. Even without the Rifftrax, this is funniest movie released this year, at least of the ones I’ve seen. The Monty Python-referencing quote I used at the beginning of the review is from Bill, and though he says it mere minutes into the film, it applies to The Happening in its entirety. It’s a staple of Python comedy to portray characters with wholly inappropriate responses to outlandishly violent circumstances. Like how the foreman looks on, wide-eyed, while his construction workers start falling from the sky like big, fleshy drops of rain. Or how people wait in an orderly fashion to use the only available gun to shoot themselves one at a time. (This happens twice). Or how the zookeeper deliberately and patiently feeds himself to the lions. If auteur M. Night Shyamalan had the comic timing of Palin, Idle or Cleese, this movie could have been called And Now for Something Completely Different Part II. As it is, the fact that it clearly isn’t meant to be a comedy only makes it funnier.

That’s right, believe it or not, this is supposed to be a serious thriller. A serious scary thriller, though the lack of mystery and the oddly tranquil tone effectively kills any possible suspense. A serious scary thriller about issues, though what those issues might be, I couldn’t say, and Mr. Shyamalan probably couldn’t either. Something global warming-ish or environmentalist-esque, probably, though for all we see in the film, it could just as easily be an anti-vegetarian screed decrying a degenerate civilization built upon the savage ingestion of our photosynthetic brethren. Whatever it is, it’s our fault; that much is clear. We all deserve to die for it, in fact. The other message I take away from this film: rural Pennsylvania is filled with quiet, stoic, and mentally disturbed backwoods folk with alarming and unsettling worldviews. One of them is named M. Night Shyamalan.

Mike, Bill and Kevin have so much to work with here, and so many long pauses in the dialog to work with it in, that it’s tough to choose something to quote. They make fun of the dreamy, lazy pacing (“Aside from the psychotic death spore, it’s a beautiful day,”—Mike); the frequent lapses into unintentional comedy (“We now return to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Night Shyamalan World,”—also Mike), and Mark Wahlberg’s casually unbalanced science teacher character (“Do they hire teachers out of Arkham Asylum?”—Mike again). With so much dead air to fill, and so little sense of impending doom to keep them down, they frequently burst into song, as in Bill’s rendition of the Simpson’s theme, “Die, Die-Die-Die / Death, Death-Death-Death / Die, Die,” and later, “Run away movie / Never come back. / Wrong way on an M. Night track.” Also amusing are there shots at the really lame villain, with Mike’s “There’s a cheap monster effect for you: The Wind,” and Kevin’s “Do you think that’s just M. Night going whoosh into a microphone?” I could go on and on. The lost half star is for Shyamalan’s off-putting self righteousness and the movie’s copious gore. If you feel like you can live with those, feel free to add it back on.