- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

M. Night Shyamalan is in that select club of name-above-the-title directors. The India-born, Philadelphia-raised auteur’s name is usually in even bigger type than that of the big names - Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and now Mark Wahlberg - who headline his films.

His distinctive moniker may not be used to sell movies much longer, though. The director hasn’t had a bona fide hit since 2002’s “Signs.” His last film, the indulgent “Lady in the Water,” bombed both commercially and critically. (My muted 2 1/2-star review of the film turned out to be one of the most favorable in the country.)

Really, the man is still coasting off the success of his first widely acclaimed film, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.” Hollywood doesn’t have that long a memory, though; he desperately needs a hit.

“The Happening” will not be that hit.

It’s not that it’s a bad film. It has its share of scares and, with a few laughs to lighten the doomsday atmosphere, manages to be pretty entertaining. However, we expect more from M. Night Shyamalan - we want serious suspense; we want to gasp at his tricks; we want a film so surprising that we must immediately watch it again.

The problem with “M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’” is that there isn’t enough M. Night Shyamalan in it.

The premise is more than intriguing. As the day begins, some sort of toxin moves through the air in Central Park, causing those who breathe it in first to get disoriented, then to freeze, then to snap out of it and kill themselves.

Is it a terrorist attack? A secret government test gone awry? Or something even more sinister?

Everyone has a conspiracy theory, including Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mr. Wahlberg). Thinking it’s a terrorist attack, he, wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) get on the first train heading out of town.

The train, of course, stops in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside, and the group is separated when Julian heads to New Jersey to look for his stranded wife, leaving Jess in the care of the Moores. As the trio tries to make its way to safety, the book-smart Elliot attempts to solve the mystery of the toxin, along with his marital troubles.

Mr. Shyamalan is one of the most creative of filmmakers; here, he uses his skills to show the different ways people might kill themselves. They run from the basic - a cop uses his gun, and when he’s finished with it, others pick it up in turn - to the unthinkable - a zookeeper gets tigers to eat him. This is why “The Happening” is his first R-rated film.

Where he didn’t get creative was in coming up with that trademark M. Night twist - there isn’t one. You know pretty early on what’s likely causing “the happening,” and yes, there’s a message here. In the past, Mr. Shyamalan has managed to impart politically relevant themes cleverly in the midst of a surprising, entertaining movie, such as the underrated “The Village.” Here, a TV crank gets the last word. That’s about as sophisticated as the ideas get.

Mr. Shyamalan reportedly wrote the script with Mr. Wahlberg in mind, and the star of “Shooter” proves again that he’s evolved effortlessly from rapper to serious actor. He has no problem carrying a movie on his own - which he has to here, because he doesn’t get much help from his co-stars.

James Newton Howard, the director’s frequent collaborator, has written a moving score that’s thankfully not overblown. It’s incredibly sad to watch human beings turn on themselves. Perhaps even worse is watching them turn on each other. “The Happening” could have been a great film. Instead, it feels lazily rushed and could end up as a nail in the coffin of Mr. Shyamalan’s headlining career.

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