Why “The Happening” Is As Bad As “The Room”

Mark Wahlberg in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.” Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Mark Wahlberg in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.” Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

An unchecked ego has a funny way of destroying everything in its path. That’s certainly the message one takes away from “The Disaster Artist,” Greg Sestero’s tremendously entertaining memoir of his love-hate relationship with Tommy Wiseau, director of 2003’s “The Room,” one of the leading candidates for the worst film ever made. Wiseau’s maddening self-confidence was exceeded only by his astounding cluelessness as he guided his mortified cast and crew over a cliff, jettisoning them to cult infamy. His level of amateurishness would seem to exist solely in pictures made outside of the studio system—that is, until one is faced with a mainstream release like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 abomination, “The Happening,” an apocalyptic thriller so laughably wrongheaded that it’s a wonder any studio allowed it to get funded. Hard to believe that the movie was made by an Oscar-nominated writer-director capable of such magnificent artistry in “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.”

Proving that a budget means zilch when it comes to ineptitude, Indie Outlook presents five good reasons why “The Happening” is as bad as “The Room”…

1. THE DIRECTOR

Shyamalan and Wiseau are nothing if not sincere creatures. When I interviewed Wiseau in 2011, he stressed the importance of building a strong foundation for your film. “I always say, ‘If you build a house, you need a foundation first before the window,’” he replied without the merest trace of irony. Sadly, “The Room” is the cinematic equivalent of a window held in mid-air above the “Dogville”-esque outline of a nonexistent house. Nothing is there to support it, thus sealing its fate as a shattered pile on the ground. Wiseau’s origins are so murky and behavior so inexplicable that one assumes he will eventually be unmasked as a poorly constructed android or a performance artist in the vein of Andy Kaufman. Shyamalan, on the other hand, is far too easy a read. After his dull and predictable mystery, “The Village,” was booed by critics, the director fired many of his longtime collaborators while going against his own better instincts, casting himself in his next film, “Lady in the Water,” as a misunderstood writer whose work is destined to save the world (the villain is, of course, a film critic played by Bob Balaban). The film was an indulgent mess setting the stage for Shyamalan’s reputation-destroying travesty, “The Happening,” two years later. The director’s delusional cocoon has never been more visible than during this wince-inducing press conference…

2. THE PLOT

Contrary to their titles, not much of consequence happens in either of these pictures, no matter what room the characters happen to be inhabiting. Sporting the same martyr complex as Shyamalan, Wiseau casts himself as Johnny, a nice guy that everyone likes (see the video below). His “future wife,” Lisa (Juliette Danielle), feigns interest in him, but is really interested in bedding his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). Devastated by betrayal, Johnny shoots himself in the face, dying in a Christ-like pose. Wiseau’s intent is to teach viewers how to be better people, though his cartoonishly misogynistic view of women betrays his supposedly pure façade. “If a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live,” Wiseau preaches, and his words are echoed by “The Happening,” where humanity is punished by nature (a la “The Birds”) for giving off bad vibes (as noted in the script).

Yet instead of avian attacks, a band of survivors led by science teacher Mark Wahlberg must dodge deadly toxins released by plants that cause humans to take their own lives in money shots as gratuitous and phony as the sex scenes in “The Room.” Environmental crises (and mankind’s willful ignorance of them) are profoundly topical subject matter, but Shyamalan’s ham-fisted approach negates his well-meaning message (a scene where characters run past a billboard exclaiming, “You deserve this!” is typical of the film’s subtlety). A key set-piece where characters outrun the wind is as inane as the sequence where characters outrun “the cold” in “The Day After Tomorrow,” a movie designed to make global warming look as fantastical as Godzilla. It’s only appropriate that “The Happening” and “The Room” are so preoccupied with characters offing themselves since both films are tantamount to career suicide.

3. THE ACTING

Okay, I’ll freely admit that no actor in the history of cinema has come close to rivaling the otherworldly wretchedness of Wiseau’s mesmerizing non-performance in “The Room.” Never before has a man’s downward spiral into self-destruction been portrayed with such zombified detachment. His Brando-inspired outbursts and full-on “Citizen Kane” homage where he trashes his house are performed with the same nonchalance as his eerily unconvincing cackle (“Hah huh ha”). Perhaps the most truly amazing achievement of “The Happening” is Shyamalan’s ability to take an accomplished cast and remove any trace of evidence that they’ve ever acted once in their entire lives. The transformation of his characters from normal humans to walking corpses falls flat since the actors are dead-eyed to begin with. Zooey Deschanel’s sole method for emoting is widening her eyes to such an obscene degree that they threaten to pop through the screen.

Of course, the biggest casualty is Mark Wahlberg, who mistakenly believed that this role would enable him to show the same vulnerability that Bruce Willis displayed so effectively in his collaborations with Shyamalan. Instead, Wahlberg comes off as hilariously effeminate, fretting about with such fussy mannerisms that he makes C-3PO look like the epitome of machismo. Consider this scene where a crazy old lady played by the great Betty Buckley (of “Cats” and “Carrie” fame) in high camp mode accuses him of wanting to do away with her. The line comes out of nowhere, and Wahlberg’s facial expressions suggest that he is trying very, very hard not to laugh (he later admitted that the film was awful). His line delivery here is as embarrassingly bad as Wiseau’s infamous “Oh hi Mark” rant.

4. THE DIALOGUE

These scripts are so astoundingly awkward that they could have easily been conceived by aliens harboring little to no understanding of human behavior.

From “The Happening”:

“Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?”

“You know, hot dogs get a bad rap. They got a cool shape.”

“Cheese and crackers!”

“Ain’t no time two people staring at each other, or standing still, loving both with their eyes are equal.”

“You should be more interested in science, Jake. You know why? Because your face is perfect.”

“With whom?”

From “The Room”: 

“Thank you, honey, this is a beautiful party! You invited all my friends. Good thinking!”

“I just can’t figure women out. Sometimes they’re just too smart. Sometimes they’re just flat-out stupid. Other times they’re just evil.”

“She’s showing everybody…me underwears.”

“I definitely have breast cancer.” “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. They’re curing people every day.”

“I mean, the candles, the music, the sexy dress…” [says a character in a room devoid of music, candles or a sexy dress]

“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”

I rest my case.

5. THE LIE

When audiences failed to embrace these films as they were originally intended, refusing to take them seriously, both directors made pitiful attempts at pretending that the films were indeed meant to be funny. Wiseau’s trailer for “The Room” jarringly juxtaposes the claim that the film was made “With The Passion of Tennessee Williams” with the exclamation, “Experience This Quirky New Comedy! It’s a Riot!”, because as we all know, Williams is known for his riotous comedies. After receiving the worst reviews of his career, Shyamalan went on the offensive, saying that he had made “the best B-movie you’ll ever see.” None of these shabby excuses conceal the inarguable fact that these films were conceived and executed with the sort of aching sincerity that can’t be faked. These aren’t cynical self-aware garbage on the order of “Birdemic.” These are works of abysmal beauty worthy of Ed Wood. You’ll laugh yourself silly for the entirety of their running time and then hate yourself for sitting through them. But that, of course, won’t stop you from inviting your friends over to watch them again. Because like all jaw-dropping works of art, you must see it to believe it…

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