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Film Reviews: ‘The Happening,’ ‘Young People F——‘


 

Once again, circumstances beyond my control have conspired to keep me from seeing the weekend’s designated blockbuster, The Incredible Hulk. So on that one, you’re on you’re own. But here’s my take on two other new releases, an unintentionally funny Hollywood thriller and a tame Canadian sex comedy, both of which have provoked some local controversy, and neither of which I can recommend.

The Happening

I’m afraid M. Night Shyamalan’s latest attempt to spook us out is a real clunker. At a Toronto press screening this week, the lame dialogue drew such howls of derisive laughter from one particular clump of critics, that a number of their colleagues made complaints to the publicist who hosted the screening for 20th Century Fox. As president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, I’ve already fielded some email complaints about unprofessional conduct by our members. The question: at what point does derisive laughter curdle into outright heckling, thus souring everyone’s view of the film without allowing critics to make up their own mind in the dark? A valid concern, to be sure. But I, too, found myself unable to resist the odd unsolicited guffaw. And if The Happening wasn’t so damn silly in the first place, critics wouldn’t be having a debate about the ethics of trying to contain their scorn. They were laughing at dialogue that was laughable. How do you expect to get an audience to believe in a a spectral force of nature that’s driving people to kill themselves, if you can’t portray a simple human interaction with a modicum of plausibility?

Like his other work (The Sixth Sense, Signs), Shyamalan’s new thriller is designed to take us into a Twilight Zone limbo and chill our blood with an unfathomable mystery. It’s “I see dead people” all over again. Except the dead people aren’t ghosts or hallucinations. In The Happening‘s apocalyptic scenario, they’re real victims of a mysterious airborne toxin that is paralyzing people within seconds, turning them into zombies infected with an irresistible desire to commit suicide right on the spot. This pandemic, which begins in Manhattan’s Central Park, is soon afflicting much of the Northeastern U.S. And I’m not giving anything away to say that the toxin seems to have something to do with plants and wind—the idea crops up early in the story. In fact, it would be difficult to give away the plot , because unlike the director’s earlier films, The Happening one doesn’t have a brain-teasing plot twist. I kept waiting for it. But, in this case, the twist is that there is no twist.

Instead, Shyamalan has constructed a rather conventional thriller wrapped in a soft-headed morality tale about our overwrought eco-system. Like many a disaster flick, it’s the story of a makeshift family on the run. As everyone flees the unseen environmental scourge, the media first interprets it as a terrorist threat (of course). Cities are evacuated. Folks high-tail it to the countryside, where things just get worse. Horror is achieved through shock images of mass suicide. A man lying down in front of a large tractor lawnmower. Bunches of bodies hanging from trees, like victims of a viral lynching. The actors have little to do but react and ask each other dumb questions. I don’t know if this was intentional, but even those who are as yet unaffected by the scourge are zombie-like. Mark Wahlberg, who’s been impressive in recent outings, is unusually wooden.

Wahlberg stars as a high school science teacher who flees with his girlfriend (Zooey Deschanel) along with his friend (John Leguizamo) and their eight-year-old daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). Looking for safe haven, they end up the farmlands of Pennsylvania, finally taking refuge in the house of an eccentric old recluse played by Broadway legend Betty Buckley. And she’s the scariest thing in the movie. Forget airborne pathogens. As Notorious and Psycho have taught us, there’s nothing more frightening than an old woman who’s a little off her rocker. And Shyamalan is still capable of giving us an electro-magnetic chill by cutting to a shot of an old woman you didn’t expect to be there, with a loud sound effect basically saying “Boo!” . But in this case, you just feel you’ve been conned by a cheap trick, and an old one at that.

Young People F——

Speaking of cons, this clever title, which has attracted so much controversy, is a masterpiece of false advertising. It gives quite the wrong impression of the film. If you spend money on YPF expecting something sexy, erotic, raw or even mildly provocative, I’ve got a dewy patch of unspoiled land in Florida that you might be interested in.

YPF is nowhere near as dirty as its title. With no genital nudity, and a lot of light comic titillation, it’s no raunchier than an average episode of Sex and the City (the TV series, not movie). This ensemble piece weaves the unlinked escapades of four heterosexual couples and a threesome, following their parallel storylines through various sexual stations of the cross, from foreplay to post-coital reflection. It has a few moments of sweetness and mirth. Some of the actresses are strong, especially Kristin Booth and Sonja Bennett. And everyone is attractive and, uh, young. But the script, is no more than a series of sketches that don’t add up to much. Tracking each relationship on parallel time lines, with the prosaic logic of a self-help manual, it unfolds as a chapter-by-chapter evolution from foreplay to climax. The sexual politics are simplistic and lopsided (women are smarter than men, duh). And the situations seem so contrived that, despite the actors’ noble efforts, I had trouble believing a moment of it. A game ensemble cast and a devious title are not enough. In the end, this ostensibly groovy independent film about cutting-edge issues in the bedroom is less convincing and more square than a mainstream romantic comedy like Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

First-time director Martin Gero, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Abrams, has penned a lot of TV episodes of Stargate: Atlantis. And YPF‘s view of sexuality seems like another breed of science fiction. You have to admire the marketing, though. The filmmakers have milked the title for all it’s worth. Around the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, lofty American outlets took the bait: New York magazine headlined its TIFF coverage with a breathless report about the Toronto Star agonizing over whether to bleep the f-word in articles about the film. New York illustrated the item with a shot of sweet-faced Canadian actor Josh Dean grinning between a woman’s parted legs. Since then, various journalists—notably Mark Steyn in Maclean’s—have awarded the film more free publicity by fulminating about Bill C-10, and pointing to YPF as an example of the sort of smut we don’t want see publicly financed. The debate over Bill C-10 brought Young People F—— onto the floor in the august chambers of the Senate.

Bill-C10—in case you’ve been nodding off in cultural politics class—would allow Ottawa to revoke tax credits for Canadian movies that federal bureaucrats find offensive, after these movies are made. (Absurdly, tax credits to American movies shot in Canada would be exempt.) It’s astonishing that such an innocuous movie as YPF should be controversial in the first place. Although YPF has become a poster child in a rearguard battle against censorship, the only thing that’s offensive about this film is its smartly crafted, squeaky-clean mediocrity.


 

Film Reviews: ‘The Happening,’ ‘Young People F——‘

  1. Good day!,

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