By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
I keep waiting for the surprise twist in M. Night Shyamalan's career, when everything wrong since the second half of Signs turns out to be only a bad dream.
It isn't found in The Happening, an eco-horror movie answering the question: What if Al Gore hired Hostel's Eli Roth to direct An Inconvenient Truth? (Not that anyone in their right mind would ask.)
Few people in The Happening are in their right minds after a mysterious toxin begins making otherwise normal people go batty and kill themselves. It could be that chemical terrorist attack we've been warned about, or maybe the actors read the end of Shyamalan's screenplay.
Actually, Shyamalan sets up the premise with admirable precision and a previously unseen ruthless streak, making the movie's eventual slide into stupidity all the more disappointing. The first 30 minutes of The Happening are genuinely, stylishly gruesome, including jumpers crunching on pavement, a driver propelling himself through a windshield and a pistol passed like a suicide relay baton.
Normality is shattered with such force that wondering what caused it is unavoidable. Then Shyamalan starts explaining, and you can sense the movie slipping out of control. Nature is protecting itself, turning plants and trees into lethal weapons — and not The Little Shop of Horrors kind that might be fun.
Naturally there's a hero to do Shyamalan's stilted talking for him. Mark Wahlberg keeps his brow symmetrically furrowed as Elliot, a high school science teacher staying one step ahead of the toxin. He's accompanied by his estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a friend, Julian (John Leguizamo), and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez), plus assorted extras. No sense confusing this material any further with more speaking roles.
The closer Elliot gets to a solution, the less those airborne toxins matter. Shyamalan changes the rules of the crisis when necessary, with increasingly longer episodes of Elliot and Alma rediscovering their affection instead of running for their lives.
An unbecoming silliness creeps into the action: Elliot tries to prove he's sane, and therefore not infected, by singing Black Water on a stranger's front porch, and conversations about hot dogs and cough syrup spring from and go nowhere. A character has only seconds to cross a field and reach his loved one before possibly dying, yet he practically stops to smell the infected roses along the way.
Shyamalan is a great idea guy and a progressively worse portrayer of those ideas. At least The Happening has a dynamite premise, until the filmmaker paints himself into inescapable corners, always finding shortcuts out and double-talk to explain. We're left to ponder how long such an imagination can stay stranded in a creative twilight zone.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.