Control Nathan and Clint: The Happening (2008)
There’s something almost beautiful about an epically bad movie. There’s a poetry, a grace, a lunatic ambition and cockeyed personality to all-time great failures that sets them apart from the pack, even if it’s just so that generations of wisenheimers can laugh lustily at their feverish ineptitude and wild overreaching.
As Huey Lewis sang, Sometimes bad is bad. And sometimes bad is sublime. I live for the sublime kind of bad, the kind you want to share with the world, to evangelize on behalf of, to rhapsodize about so that others may know its tacky pleasures.
M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-disaster movie The Happening is that kind of movie. It’s good-bad, a guilty pleasure, a movie where something memorably bizarre and unforgettable is happening in every scene. It’s an embarrassment of riches of the richly embarrassing, an atmospheric, R-rated horror movie where the bad guy, and also the heroes, are plants and trees who have just about had it with human beings littering and driving gas guzzlers and polluting and decide to finally fight back.
So these crafty bark-covered monsters, these leafy beasts, these murderous daisies, release a toxin into the air that makes people want to commit suicide instantly in a variety of colorful, bloody and unintentionally hilarious ways.
Plants are making people kill themselves. It’s no great loss. As portrayed in the motion picture The Happening, humanity kind of sucks. They’re pretty shitty. I’m not sure they deserve to survive. I don’t want to come off as selling out my own species, but when it comes to trees taking over all I have to say is “Yaaaaasss Queen” to Mother Nature. I, for one, welcome our new plant overlords. To be honest, I’ve always considered myself to be mostly plant, not unlike the Swamp Thing or Solomon Grundy.
In one of The Happening’s many iconic sequences, Mark Wahlberg’s freaked-out plant lover has an animated, albeit one-sided conversation with a houseplant during which he implores it not to use its incredible powers to kill him and his family. The punchline, such as it is, is that he’s talking to a plastic plant, and realizes how stupid he looks, but that one moment of winking self-awareness doesn’t change the fact that Night thought that he could make a movie where the crazed mass murderer isn’t Jason or Freddy but a fucking Poinsettia. I don’t care how spooky Night finds the sound of wind rustling through killer trees, whistling quietly with ominous intent: killer plants are hilarious, not scary. Suicide is no laughing matter, with two notable exceptions: the Dom DeLuise dark comedy The End and evil plant-induced suicide.
An exquisitely miscast Mark Wahlberg stars as Elliott Moore, a science teacher introduced angrily taunting a pretty boy student about how his good looks will fade with time, at which point he will lose all social currency, so if he doesn’t want to be a penniless social pariah, he better know a whole lot about science. These words might have slightly more conviction if delivered by an actor who hadn’t, at this point, already put out his own fitness video, 1993’s Form…Focus…Fitness, the Marky Mark workout. Wahlberg’s phenomenal success as an actor and mogul is one hundred percent rooted in him looking like a dude who could strip for one of those Magic Mike live shows and zero percent rooted in scientific knowledge.
Wahlberg is supposed to be such a big science nerd that he wants to first on a kissing date with science, and then marry it. Instead, it feels like Wahlberg would punch science if he could.
Wahlberg doesn’t just play a science teacher here, or a man who really appreciates science. No, he’s something closer to a “Science is Badass” bumper sticker come to life. He’s supposed to be a Poindexter, a geek, a brain who prizes the life of the mind over the sweaty, physical and visceral. And he’s played by Mark Wahlberg, a man who dropped out of high school to get a head start on committing hate crimes.
In The Happening an unknown toxin, pollutant or plague causes a plague of people committing suicide at the same time and the same place. Then everything goes back to normal until it starts Happening all over again, this time in Night’s home turf of Pennsylvania. People are offing themselves in great gothic orgies of fatal self-destruction, which are supposed to have the dark, primal power of waking nightmares but instead feel like a video game where everyone got so bored and frustrated that they all decided to kill themselves en masse just to give themselves something to do.
In a desperate bid for survival, Elliott and wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), along with Elliott’s best friend, co-worker and statistician Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Julian) all head out to the country to find places uncorrupted by the epidemic attack of the Crazies.
They meet a shaggy botanical nut, the kind of agreeable oddball who might have been played by Bob Denver in an earlier era, who volunteers, “You know, hot dogs get a bad rap. They got a cool shape. They got protein. You like hot dogs, right?” as if he absolutely needs to make a shape and nutrition-based case for hot dogs but a very brief one.
This man, who I have taken to calling Hot Dog Hippie, instantly became my all-time favorite character in the M. Night Shyamalan universe. Oh sure, he serves an important narrative function in introducing the idea that these suicides might be plant revenge-based in nature but to me that’s not as important as his bizarre Tommy Wiseau-like digression about the awesomeness of meat tubes.
After Julian dies, Elliott and Alma look after his daughter and the three end up at the house of Mrs. Jones, a reclusive old eccentric played by legendary, Tony Award-winning theater actress Betty Buckley. In the kind of touch that separates run-of-the-mill garbage from the kind that is mocked/celebrated, Jones sees Elliott looking at her with his trademark glare of barely suppressed rage and confusion and pours every last bit of Tennessee Williams she possesses into the line, “Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?”
Lemon drink! Lemon drink! To us human beings it’s known as “lemonade” but on Night’s planet it also goes by “lemon drink” and small talk often revolves around extolling the dimensions and nutritional value of humble earthling hot dogs, which we earth humans love to eat up good, yum yum!
Wahlberg is supposed to be in a perpetual heightened state because he’s in a dire emergency, trying to use science to avoid the eco-pocalypse. Instead he seems angry and amped up and aggro because he hates the movie he's in, and the character he’s playing, and every line of dialogue, and science, so much. Oh, but this science-lover seems to hate science!
Maybe Wahlberg’s science-loving nerd not so secretly hates science because it blames him for his hopeless lack of chemistry with an equally miscast Deschanel. Deschanel, whose character type I would define as that of a Sassy Waif Fantasy Gal, seems hopelessly lost and out of place not just in this movie but in this genre and universe as well.
Deschanel delivers her lines as if unhappily encountering them for the first time. There’s an exquisite element of passive-aggression in Deschanel’s turn here. It’s as if she thinks that she can escape this waking nightmare by broadcasting her disinterest as loudly and blatantly as possible. Deschanel doesn’t say her lines so much as she mocks them. She’s engaged in a weird sulky protest against the abomination she finds herself trapped in; she’s heckling the movie from inside to let us know in no uncertain terms that, if anything, she’s even more insulted by it than we are.
Deschanel and Wahlberg. Wahlberg and Deschanel. Separately and together, they make no sense. They are spectacularly wrong for each other, but then again every other element of the film is spectacularly wrong as well.
Deschanel and Wahlberg’s marriage faces a pair of threats The Happening treats as roughly equal: a mysterious ecological apocalypse that threatens to wipe out mankind and life as we know it and one partner going out for dessert with a coworker.
Bear in mind we’re not talking about infidelity. We’re not talking about sex. We’re not even talking about making out. No, we’re talking two consenting adults eating Tiramisu. It’s as if sex does not exist in Night’s weirdly innocent, Boy Scout universe, and the worse Night can imagine is a married lady maybe kissing a dude who isn’t her husband in the back of a cab and then regretting it as long as she lives. The Happening doesn’t even go that far. It goes no farther than Tiramisu yet Shyamalan nevertheless expects us to be emotionally invested in this couple, to root for them to stay together and overcome ambivalence, a near-apocalypse and tiramisu.
Where Glass lingers for 129 minutes, The Happening is in and out in about 85 fast-paced minutes jam-packed with world-class stupidity like the lemon drink, the miscasting of Mark Wahlberg as SCIENCE MAN and the Hot Dog Hippie.
I hated, hated, hated Glass. It’s a movie that did not need to get made, that dishonored Unbreakable’s legacy, but if a sequel were to find the son of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn/The Overseer squaring off against The Happening’s Hot Dog Hippie in a winner-takes-all battle to control the hot dog market, and with it the fate of humanity, I would literally be first in line on opening day, cosplaying as Hot Dog Hippie, with a paper bag of full of cool-shaped tube steaks bursting with protein.
Cause the thing about hot dogs is that they’ve got a cool shape and they’ve got proteins. Just like The Happening, they get a bad rap but are a whole lot of fun if you’re in the mood for some tasty garbage.
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