Screenwriter and director M. Night Shyamalan continues his downward slide into mediocrity with “The Happening,” a movie about some type of poison that is released in the air and makes any human that breathes it become suicidal.  At this point, some critics would make a joke that connects watching this movie with wanting to commit suicide.  No, no, this movie isn’t that bad.  Mediocre, yes, but not bad.  Of course, this being a Hollywood movie that costs about $50 million, I’d expect more.  I got more, all right, but it was more disappointment.

Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel play a married couple who evacuate their home in a big city when reports of possible terrorist-released poison gas are reported all throughout the East Coast.  Their escape comes to a halt when the train they are on suddenly stops in a small town because the conductors have lost all contact with the rest of the world.  The passengers soon make a run for middle America when it’s reported on the news that only the East Coast have been attacked.  Wahlberg, Deschanel, and the daughter of Wahlberg’s best friend join a large group of survivors who are not only trying to avoid the poisoned air, they are also trying to solve the mystery of who is responsible for releasing the poison into the air.

Unfortunately for the viewer, the answer to the mystery is revealed very early in the movie.  Earlier Shyamalan movies are known for their surprise, twist endings.  No such thing in “The Happening.”  Okay, so is that, in and of itself, the reason why this movie is mediocre?  No, but there are other reasons.

Reason 1: Wahlberg and Deschanel are horribly miscast in this movie, not just as leads, but as a married couple.   They simply have no chemistry together.  It’s like mixing whiskey with orange juice.  Huh, what?  There you go.  Wahlberg, of course, is best suited for the tough guy, action role.  But here, the screenplay wimps him out to the point where he is laughable.  The scene when his small group of survivors are freaking out and asking Wahlberg what they should do, and Wahlberg screams out something like “Will someone just give me a Goddamned minute!” brought out laughter from the audience when I first watched it years ago in the movie theaters.   There are many more moments like these.  Moments that make me wonder if Shyamalan was making a hybrid comedy/suspense/thriller/drama.

My wondering is over: this is just — reason 2 — unfocused screenwriting.   There’s a lot of unevenness to “The Happening.”  The first 10 minutes are intense and horrifying, with zero humor.  What happens after that is a mish-mosh of comedy, edge of your seat suspense, and uninspired acting.

Reason 3: Shyamalan.  Hey, as an experienced writer/director, he should know better.  The script needed a hell of a lot more polishing, he should’ve been on the ball with the casting of the leads, and his direction should have been tighter.

(Sigh) Despite all this, I still enjoyed this movie, the first time, and this time also.  Why?  Because the opening sequence really hooks you in!  It’s that good.  And there are a few scenes after the first act that show Shyamalan’s talents as a master of suspense.

One such scene is my most memorable, movie moment of “The Happening”: the part where people are in a Jeep Wrangler (I think that’s the vehicle) driving slowly through Princeton, looking for friends and relatives who may still be alive; but all they see on the streets are dead people.  The air around them is poisoned, and there is a tear in the fabric roof of the vehicle!

Coming in second place for my most memorable moment of this movie is the scene when Wahlberg, Deschanel, and the little girl are taking shelter in a weird woman’s house.  All of a sudden the weird woman tells Wahlberg that she suspects he will murder her in her sleep.  She walks away, and the camera zooms in on Wahlberg’s face as he replies, “Whaaaat?  Noooooooo!”  Ha-ha!  It’s the most hilarious part in the movie.  Shyamalan completely destroyed the mood/atmosphere/tone/intensity of the movie once again.  But hey, at least I got a laugh out of it, and so did the majority of the audience in the movie theater.

Oh, when the movie ended, and I was in the men’s room relieving myself, one person who watched “The Happening” asked his friend “Who wrote this story, Al Gore?”  Hee-hee, watch the movie and you’ll find out what he meant.

— M