Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Happening: Could A Village Make Sense Of These Signs?

"THE HAPPENING", the latest film by the former genius M. Night Shyamalan, begs many questions. Maybe the biggest question of all is, "Mark Wahlberg?"

The Sixth Sense... Unbreakable... Signs...

In the early days of the career of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, these films were like the breaking of the day after the long cinematic darkness. Phrases like, ..."not since Hitchcock..." and, "...if only Orson Welles..." were thrown as loosely around Hollywood as company credit cards at a strip club south of Downtown.

In these motion pictures, a twenty-something outsider took three larger-than-life box office stars (Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Mel Gibson) and somehow caused these big-dollar, name-above-the-title giants to fill the everyman persona of ordinary folk, till movie-goers couldn't wait for more.

Even as the shiny new was rubbing off of Night's bright career with the appearance of The Village, followed by Lady In The Water, the day for Night, though increasingly cloudy, still had patches of brilliance (like when the movie critic gets eaten by a fairytale wolf while hiding in the laundry room in Lady), you still knew that as studio execs grew tired of the same old stories, the only thing keeping good Night from straight-to-DVD hell was an Academy Award and Shyamalan's ability to get Hollywood A-listers to line up to work for him.

Not only were there the Willis/Jackson/Gibson connection, but Shyamalan continued to attract a fresh wave of newer talent in multiple Oscar nominees Haley Joel Osment, Joaquin Phoenix and Paul Giamatti, even 2002 Best Actor winner Adrien Brody. From 1999 to 2006, it seemed like the toughest club in Hollywood for getting past the velvet ropes was the "Lead Role by an Actor in a film by M. Night Shyamalan" club.

Which brings us to today.

The word is out. First whispered by agents, then carried along the wind on cocktail napkin memos and mom's basement bloggers all across the country and beyond. "Avoid this guy like the Ishtar", and "You're better off doing the sequel to Superman Returns." Even Kevin Spacey passed.

So today, June 13, 2008, we welcome the premier of The Happening... a film by M. Night Shyamalan... starring...

Mark Wahlberg.

Mark Wahlberg has worked with some of Hollywood's best-known directors. The list includes Best Director winner Martin Scorsese, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights; There Will Be Blood), Tim Burton, Jonathan Demme, Wolfgang Peterson and John Singleton. Yet, he is still remembered more as a former underwear model and one-time musical star(?). In fact, Mark Wahlberg has yet to be a part of any film that has generated big numbers that didn't have George Clooney's name on it.

So why would the has-been director turn to the never-was actor to resurrect each other's careers? My guess is that the now-veteran director may have pulled a fast one on his star.

In interviews leading up to the premier of The Happening, Wahlberg has said,

"Night described this movie as Kramer vs Kramer meets The Birds."

Which explains it all. Wahlberg probably hasn't seen either movie, so it must have been simple for Shyamalan to drop this used tea bag of a script on the actor best remembered for playing opposite Helena Bonham Carter in chimpanzee make-up.

Then there's that R rating thing. This is the first M. Night Shyamalan film ever to have earned an R from the MPAA. So important is The Happening's R that is the over one month of t.v. ads for the picture, the R is displayed in blood red while an announcer tells you about it over pictures of well-edited depictions of violence. The R campaign takes on an even more heightened sense of marketing urgency when you hear the director himself say in an interview,

"One of the things that I said to everybody, the cast and crew, I said, 'This is a B movie. Let's get ourselves straight here. This is just a great B movie. We're making the best B movie we can here. That's our job. We're making a B movie'."

Nothing like lowering expectations on the success of a project with production costs estimated at around $67 million.

So what will become of The Happening? Will it return M. Night Shyamalan to the top of the food chain in Hollywood? What about Mark Wahlberg? Will his new picture prove that he, like all of Shyamalan's other lead actors is, in fact, a stand-alone box office draw?

If it doesn't, I just hope that I, as the critic of Shyamalan's apocalyptic fairytale, won't meet as untimely an ending as the cranky film critic in Lady In The Water.