The Happening & r & & r & by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Happening, evidently, is a movie about an ill-defined incident that occurs to a large number of people across a wide region consisting of several states. (How's that for narrative detail?)

If M. Night Shyamalan can give us what he clearly believes is an exciting and dramatic movie even though it's full of generalized people reacting to strange and unknowable terrors in the most banal and apathetic ways, then I can give you a review to match. Therefore, I shall proceed to discuss the various activities of said filmmaker using a variety of methods from which all coherence and feeling has been removed.

Nah, I can't do that. Because I'm pissed.

Maybe Shyamalan didn't mean for The Happening to be exciting and dramatic: Perhaps the writer-director intended the film to be an exercise in sucking all the life and emotion out of fictional characters. Because why else would any filmmaker put lines of dialogue into characters' mouths that sound like this? "There appears to be an event happening." Or this: "It's all some weird event." Or this: "There's something happening in a few states." Or (and this might be my anti-favorite), this: "We can't just stay here as uninterested observers."

Certainly audience members will be uninterested observers. Though of course I recommend against becoming an observer in the first place.

Strange and unknowable terrors are indeed afoot on this spring day -- first in New York, where people start behaving oddly and then lose all sense of not-wanting-to-kill-oneself. Shyamalan gives us a group of folks in Philadelphia (his usual fictional stomping grounds), who learn that this event appears to be occurring and decide that the best thing to do is to escape the city before the event decides to occur itself in Philly. So we have Mark Wahlberg's Elliot and John Leguizamo's Julian, best pals and schoolteachers, and Elliot's wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and Julian's young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and they're all heading out of the city, like everyone else is. Shyamalan manages to whip up about two minutes' worth of effective drama in a scene on a commuter train packed with scared people, as news of more events occurring spreads among them, via frightened cell phone calls and such.

But that's the only moment approaching real we'll ever get in this film, as Elliot and Co. hit the road. By the half-hour mark, this movie has run out of steam. It might have made for a decent episode of The Twilight Zone -- but an 80-minute movie? That's dragging it out beyond all hope of making it work. Wahlberg's Elliot, a science teacher, has an idea about what might be causing the event. But as preposterous and as outta-nowhere as his idea is within the context of the story, it's even worse from Shyamalan's perspective as the writer. That's because Shyamalan has so little idea of what to do with his scenario. All he ends up devising is a hodgepodge of stilted dialogue and lifeless characters doing ridiculous things.

You want one of Shyamalan's famous twist endings? Try this: The Happening is a big joke on us. It's a put-on. It's Shyamalan deliberately pulling our collective leg. Because a movie this terrible could only be calculated. Unless there's an event happening in Shyamalan's brain, too. (Rated R)

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