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IT'S NOT HAPPENING

I could almost feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. From the self-assured auteur who manipulated both his medium and his audience to such great effect in 1999's “The Sixth Sense,” his films have devolved into unsatisfying exercises that smell faintly of Hitchcock but appear to have learned little from that master.
    All of his films have their moments, where lighting and music and simple but subtle camera work draw you in and misdirect your fears only to slam you from another direction. That happened several times in “Signs” before it degenerated into an unconvincing, blubbery testimonial to the existence of God. “The Village” had some atmospheric jolts before you figured out the “secret” about half an hour in, but not enough to drag me to “Lady in the Water,” which was, by all accounts, a fairy tale more fractured than mythic.
    “The Happening,” which just opened locally, marks another level of devolution in Shyamalan's work. The storytelling in this new feature is luke-warm, static, and anemic; the plot involves people fleeing from a disaster, but even when they're running it's hard to get excited, because you can't see what they're running from.
    Even the laughable “Cloverfield” had a big monster that knocked skyscrapers over. “The Happening” is trying for a more subtle approach, but it's too subtle for its own good: “Look out! Here comes the breeze!”
    The movie starts with an arresting visual: on a balmy summer's day, strollers in New York's Central Park suddenly stop in their tracks and begin committing suicide by the hundreds. Overhead, flights of construction workers start sailing off their scaffolding and landing with sickening thuds, in a badly-calculated facsimile of the Twin Towers.
    Down in Philadelphia, Mark Wahlberg plays a high school science teacher who's trying to get his class interested in the disappearance of the honeybees. As soon as he sounds this foreshadowy note of ecological disaster, news arrives of what is thought to be the terrorist attack in New York: a fiendish neurotoxin? Maybe.
    Nothing's happening yet in Philly, but Mark and his family, along with several thousand friends, decide to break for the presumably safer wide open spaces just before the Bad Thing hits Rittenhouse Square.
    When the news spreads through the train via cell phones – a gimmick that screenwriters seem no longer able to do without – Wahlberg immediately twigs to the fact that Both Times It Started In A Park.
    That pretty much gives the show away – before long we all know that the plants are altering their chemistry to get rid of the nasty humans by flipping our self-preservation switch to cause the mass suicides. If this sounds unconvincing to you, ask yourself why the plants started out by slaughtering the bees, which are absolutely necessary to plant survival.
    From then on all the cast can do is run away from the wind, which is a thankless task even for very good actors.
    Wahlberg, who has matured tremendously since his Marky Mark days, here forgoes his usual tough-guy image to play a refreshingly sweet, thoughtful and smart kinda guy. Zooey Deschanel, as his wife, has a kind of goofy charm that comes across in her kind of goofy acting. And fortunately they both get a few fairly humorous scenes – at one point Wahlberg starts talking to a plastic tree – that I'm willing to concede might have been put in on purpose.
    Unfortunately there are even more scenes that are unintentionally funny: there's an episode in a zoo's lion house that should have been horrifying, but which perfectly mirrors the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” SURELY Shyamalan has watched Monty Python, and if he hasn't, how does he dare even START? And if he IS aping Monty Python for comic effect, he's wrecking the TONE. Sorry, M. Night, you're damned both ways. (No more upper-case flaming, I promise.)
    Eventually the pollen, or whatever, whittles the refugees down to our couple and their best friend's little girl, who discover the perfect Buck's County stone farmhouse fixer-upper. Fortunately for the movie's last ten minutes it's inhabited by Betty Buckley, who plays a tart old Luddite dame who provides a refreshing Mammy-Yokum foil to the helpless city folk.
    Believe me, I'm not saying that subtle can't be scary. Robert Wise's 1963 “The Haunting” is still the single most terrifying movie ever made, and you see absolutely nothing: there are no monsters, there are no psychopaths. It's all done with suggestion and psychology, just as in Shirley Jackson's book. (Do you think maybe Shyamalan hasn't watched this one either?)
    I haven't seen Shyamalan's earlier work, “Praying with Anger” and “Wide Awake,” which got good critical buzz, but I'll never forget being gobsmacked (in the best way) by “Sixth Sense.” Now it's looking as if Shyamalan may be one of those tyros who peaks early and spends the rest of his career flailing madly in an attempt to recapture his early triumphs. If so, too bad;  I think the guy ought to relax and let his subconscious linger over a few more archetypes for a while.
    There are still many horror movies about ecological disaster to be made.  Like Roland Emmerich's 2004 “Day After Tomorrow” they may be unsubtle and scientifically spurious but hugely entertaining. “The Happening” is both spurious and dull, which is close to unforgivable, because it trivializes the problem.