M. Night Shyamalan used to have a vast army of fans. Now he has a dwindling network of apologists. The former frightmaster's descent from wunderkind to embarrassment has been unusually dramatic and public, thanks not only to the high-profile failures of The Village and Lady In The Water, but also to such bizarre, backfiring ego-stroking endeavors as The Man Who Heard Voices, Michael Bamberger's fawning, sycophantic account of the making of Lady In The Water, and the self-indulgent faux-documentary The Buried Secret Of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan should be glad he makes movies primarily in Pennsylvania instead of Hollywood, because under California's "three strikes" law, he'd be facing hard time in movie jail thanks to his third consecutive disaster, The Happening.
A miscast Mark Wahlberg stars as a science teacher whose soothing, almost hypnotic vocal patterns seem modeled on the paternal purr of Mr. Rogers. Wahlberg's humdrum existence changes instantly when the denizens of major cities and towns in the Northeast begin inexplicably committing suicide en masse. Wahlberg flees to the countryside with wife Zooey Deschanel to wait out the catastrophe; there, he encounters such colorful characters as a plant-lover obsessed with hot dogs and a mean old spinster who doesn't much cotton to city slickers eyeballing her "lemon drink."
The spectacularly ill-conceived, tension-free The Happening will have audiences on the edge of the their seats, contemplating whether to bail out early or see Shyamalan's latest grab-bag of ineptly executed bad ideas through to the bitter end. The film confirms that its creator's once vice-like grip on the public imagination and skillful, borderline sadistic manipulation of audience emotions has given way to clammy, flop-sweat-drenched flailing. With its focus on a nuclear family faced with a sinister, enigmatic outside threat, The Happening suggests a remake of Signs with all the dread replaced by great gales of unintentional laughter, most notably during an ostensibly terrifying zoo-animal attack that might just be the funniest scene of the summer. When the underlying cause of the widespread freakery becomes apparent in a twist too idiotic to give away—think The Birds by way of Al Gore—the film devolves even further into unintended camp. Shyamalan still has an abundance of personality and ambition, and there are scattered moments of craft throughout, but the gulf between his lofty aspirations and feeble accomplishments has seldom been wider or more chuckle-inducing.