As WORLD-ENDING scenarios go, M. Night Shyamalan favors the whimper over the bang. In "The Happening," his latest elegant but failed creep-fest, some mysterious force causes people to freeze, and then resourcefully do themselves in by whatever means at hand. The action begins in New York City, where diversity and sheer population density immediately yield an impressive array of creative suicides within a three-block radius. In Central Park, a woman stabs herself in the jugular with a hair accessory. A few blocks away, leaping construction workers rain from a rooftop in an image reminiscent of the fall of the twin towers. In Philadelphia, not long afterward, the term "suicide by cop" takes on a whole new meaning.
You get the sense that the film came to Shyamalan in visually arresting, philosophically charged images like these -- they are inspired, and the movie's central concept is just as intriguing. What would drive the people of New York, and later the people of the entire Eastern Seaboard, to calmly kill themselves? (It could be a force of nature, though government officials suspect terrorism.) Unfortunately, as the movie unspools, other questions come to mind, such as: What would make Mark Wahlberg give one of the worst performances of his career? What would inspire Shyamalan to miscast a limited actress like Zooey Deschanel in the underwritten role as his dissatisfied wife?
The mysterious airborne substance that's making people kill themselves is believed to be some kind of neurotoxin that blocks the self-preservation instinct in humans. But would simply removing the self-preservation instinct really cause people to instantly annihilate themselves? En masse? I'd have thought it would lead to slower, more indirect forms of self-destruction, like riding a bike without a helmet or drinking and driving or unsafe sex. This, sadly, is the question Shyamalan neglects to answer, which, in the wake of films like "28 Days Later," is a letdown.
Wahlberg plays Elliot, a Philadelphia science teacher going through a marital rough patch with his wife, Alma (Deschanel). Alma has been flirting with a guy from work who calls so often and texts so insistently she likens him to "the lady from 'Fatal Attraction.' " As it turns out, the marital transgression is as tame and laughable as the explanation Elliot eventually comes up with for what's happening and as unintentionally funny as all the subsequent shots of trees with scary music playing against them. Elliot and Alma's connubial troubles are meant to add tension to the situation at hand, but even Elliot finds it hard to get worked up over a split tiramisu -- which, if you're Alma, apparently, is all it takes for a guy to hound you through doomsday.
It doesn't help that Wahlberg, whose work usually ranges from solid to inspired, is bewildering off-key here, though it may have something to do with playing off Deschanel, who reduces the whole marriage story line to a parody. While Wahlberg exudes sincerity and concern (the Mr. Rogers shtick doesn't suit him at all), Deschanel can't seem to shake her protective ironic layer even in the face of horror and spends much of the movie looking like she's trapped in a "Saturday Night Live" skit.
You wonder if this wasn't, for some reason, the effect Shyamalan was going for. Wahlberg's displays of emotion are alarmingly strained at times, and yet they never mesh with what's going on. It's as if everyone is too focused on personal problems to throw himself or herself into a much more situation-appropriate sweaty mass panic, too self-absorbed to get truly hysterical. Minor scraps of conversation are almost comically loaded, as when John Leguizamo, as Elliot's math teacher friend Julian, solemnly tells Alma he's glad she's decided to come along -- to what is clearly turning out to be the city's evacuation. Or when a couple that help Elliot and Alma on the road segue from a paean to hot dogs into some nifty facts about plants that help Elliot figure out what might be going on.
Is it fair to bring up Shyamalan's (in)famous insularity as a possible explanation for "The Happening's" many missteps? Because the lack of integration between the main characters and the wider world is at the root of the movie's problems. As Elliot discovers that the airborne substance attacks smaller and smaller human populations, he, Alma and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) retreat further into improbability and unchecked silliness. Eventually, they stumble across the lonely homestead of a paranoid old woman played by Betty Buckley, who refuses to hear news of the outside world.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan spends more time in scenarios like these than in the much richer environments like the model home Elliot, Alma, Jess and two teenage traveling companions stumble into. Everything in the house is fake, including the plastic juice in glasses, the fake sushi on the table and the synthetic ficus Wahlberg encounters in the den. As they flee the house when others advance on it, they pass a sign advertising the McMansion development that reads "You Deserve This!" implying that our absurd materialism will lead to our destruction. And no doubt it will and we do. But at this point we also deserve a better movie about it.
"The Happening." MPAA rating: R for violent and disturbing images. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In wide release.