Would you believe it’s a happening?


Bad Movie Nights have gotten harder to do.

There are two elements to this observation. For one, when we started engaging in this diversion in dreck over a decade ago it was relatively easy to pull a night together. Out of habit as much as anything else, I was seeing damn near everything in the theater so I knew from firsthand experience that The Island of Dr. Moreau or Congo or The Postman was going to be perfectly suited for drunken mockery. Then there is the matter of the assembled viewers. We had a solid band of wisecracking bad movie aficionados in Wisconsin, and eventually developed another impressive group down in Florida. Since making the Tar Heel State our home, Bad Movie Nights have typically been twosomes. Now we have enough smart-alecky disdain to keep the running commentary as full and consistent as it’s ever been, but there’s an inevitable down-tick in energy that comes from operating with a smaller group. That makes the night less boisterous, but it also presents a challenge when it comes to the simple matter of endurance. It can be easier to push through a fractured feature when there’s a full house. When it’s just the two of us, the temptation to call it quits on a movie is sometimes too great to resist.

Which is a very long way to shamefully admit to the following: Last night, a movie broke me.

We started the night with The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008). This was widely viewed as M. Night Shyamalan’s attempt to reestablish his credentials as a creator of moody horror after the debacle in the deep end from two summers earlier. To that end, he cooks up a story that involves huge groups of people suddenly stopping their tracks, spouting gibberish and then committing suicide. The latter happens in more and more creative ways as the film progresses, of course, less due to the internal logic of the story and more because of the need to keep reengaging the audience as the film’s meager running time progresses. Early on it may be as simple as jumping off of a buildings or utilizing a handy firearm, but eventually you’re going to have to get someone to climb into a lions’ cage, offering up his appendages to get torn away like the Monty Python knight who claimed to only suffer from a flesh wound.

The plot is inane. Indeed, it barely exists. It’s a slender concept to hang a movie on, serving as little more than a route for Shyamalan to make a dippy environmental point while supposedly spooking the audience. The latter doesn’t happen at all, at lest in part because the director with an instinctual adeptness with atmospheric visuals who stirred up a sensation with The Sixth Sense has entirely drifted away. Shyamalan directs The Happening with the measured blandness that marks the weakest television productions. Visually, it often feels like it’s all tight close-ups and stiff shots of actors struggling their way through leaden exposition.

It doesn’t help that Shyamalan has made a couple of key mistakes in the casting process, and any facility he has to help actors shape believable performances completely abandons him. As an earnest science teacher trying to puzzle out this catastrophe, Mark Wahlberg delivers all of his lines in a sort of staccato of sincerity. Meanwhile, Zooey Deschanel is purely and unmistakably Zooey Deschanel, delightful in her offbeat line deliveries and entirely separate from the material. You never believe in her as anyone other than Zooey Deschanel in movie that doesn’t interest her. Of course, that detachment is the only sensible approach to the material.

That led to our second film of the night, which just so happened to come from another director who was once the beneficiary of rapturous acclaim. This was the film that wrestled me to the floor and declared its dominance, besting me with its sheer unwatchability. This was Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006).

It’s hard to even know where to begin. Dwayne Johnson gamely, awkwardly and futilely sending up his own image as an amnesiac action star? Sarah Michelle Gellar playing (poorly) a dim-witted porn star with aspirations towards mass marketing her image? The casting of no fewer than four actors with Saturday Night Live cast member as the most prominent bullet point on their resume? Maybe just look at that image above of poor Wallace Shawn and consider the strained, hyper-stylized satire that his overly-designed appearance signals. This is the sort of movie that allows you to convey its overwhelming awfulness by simply listing off details of its plot, characters and constructions. No evaluation is required. Just note there are character names like Dr. Soberin Exx and General Teena MacArthur. Explain that there are significant passages of the film that involve Seann William Scott, an actor that we barely need one of, playing scenes against himself, special effects giving us the opportunity to see Scott’s blank mongrel stare on both sides of a two-shot.

The film is so bad that you simply marvel at the fact that it proceeded to completion, that someone among the overstuffed cast didn’t step forward and express alarm at the emerging disaster. How can scenes this inane and wandering be performed by individuals who have been previously employed on movie sets? It’s as if the cult success of Richard Kelly’s debut, Donnie Darko, mesmerized all assembled. Either that or it caused a shared paralysis, preventing anyone from stepping forward to cry out “The emperor has no script!” The film is so bad that we couldn’t finish it. We made it an hour, which is already a demonstration of noteworthy endurance. We watched the remaining ninety minutes on blessed fast-forwarded, returning to regular speed only occasionally. This usually involved something especially bizarre catching our eye, like Justin Timberlake in his role as a battle-scarred gunner performing a musical number. If we hadn’t decided to watch that moment, we never would have known that he was actually lip-synching to “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers, something else that can be added to the hefty list of inexplicable choices.

I do feel a little bad that we didn’t watch the entire film properly, like I’m derelict in my duties as a devotee of cinematic wrong turns. Then again, we call it Bad Movie Night, not Movie Masochism Night. There’s only so much pain a person can take.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

5 thoughts on “Would you believe it’s a happening?

  1. I swear there’s a good movie in “Southland Tales”… somewhere.

    Cut the Sean William Scott twin plot, and the copious amounts of Bush-era lazy editorial, and the Kevin Smith subplot, and about 3/4s of the cast. Jettison basically everything except for the Dwayne Johnson/Sarah Michelle Gellar plot, and you have a decent (bizarro) movie.


    -“24 Hours to Midnight: The Blog!”

    1. You may be right, although it may in that instance be useful to also replace Gellar and Johnson with performers who can act outside of a limited range.

      And turn it over to a writer-director who hasn’t fallen in love with his or her own hype to bring a lighter touch to the proceedings.

      What on earth does that movie look like?

      1. Clearly, an ENTIRELY different movie than “Southland Tales”. Still, I think that we don’t need to burn the movie to the ground and salt the earth. There’s some good in there. Not a good movie – but, some good in a bad movie.

        -“24 Hours to Midnight: The Blog!”

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