Associated Press
Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma (Zooey Deschanel) take a closer look at an approaching and powerful threat in "The Happening."
THE HAPPENING — * — Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, brief drugs, vulgarity, slurs)

If you didn't know better, you'd swear "The Happening" was supposed to be taken as a joke. An elaborate and sometimes head-scratching one, but a joke nonetheless. ...

Unfortunately, once-respected screenwriter and director M. Night Shyamalan ("Signs," "The Sixth Sense") has proved he really doesn't have much of a sense of humor when it comes to himself or his movies.

So, it seems his latest film — a science-fiction/thriller that features a rather heavy-handed environmental message — was obviously meant to be taken seriously.

However, the movie is so inept in terms of coherent, cohesive storytelling and in some other filmmaking aspects that it deserves to be laughed off the screen. Also, it's by far Shyamalan's most violent film. There are some gory moments that easily merit the R rating it boasts.

As for the movie's somewhat nebulous title, it refers to sudden mass hysteria that occurs along the East Coast. In New York's Central Park, visitors have been killing themselves.

At first, it's believed this may have been caused by some sort of toxin that's been either released into the atmosphere by terrorists or coming from other causes.

And as the suicidal behavior spreads, it sets off panic as far away as Philadelphia, which is where Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) lives.

The high school teacher and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), have a strained relationship, but they have agreed to put aside their differences until the crisis is over.

The only times the film connects is in these quieter moments, the ones dealing with the human drama. The rest of it is so silly that this talented cast seems to be having a hard time keeping a straight face.

That's even true of Deschanel, a usually strong actress who gives one of her less-convincing performances.

"The Happening" is rated R for strong, often disturbing violent imagery (acts of suicidal behavior, including shootings, vehicular mayhem, an animal mauling and wrist slitting), some fairly graphic gore and blood, scattered profanity, brief drug references, and use of some crude slang terms and derogatory slurs. Running time: 91 minutes.

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