Starring: Mark Walhberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan (“Lady in the Water”)
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”)

Forget about hating Mel Gibson for his off-screen shenanigans. It’s now hip to ridicule director M. Night Shyamalan for his actual work in Hollywood. Since he shocked audiences with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, which earned him two Academy Award nominations (one as director and one as screenwriter), Shyamalan has failed to reach that same level of success with his last four films (although the first two-thirds of “Signs” was suspenseful and smart before the final act).

Now, Shyamalan attempts to redeem himself for “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” and the overrated “Unbreakable” with “The Happening,” a film being marketed as his first R-rated film ever.

A little extra blood and disturbing images don’t help the director’s cause, however. “The Happening” is still a lankly-written film at best, although the first few scenes will have you wondering if Shyamalan might really be able to break out of his deep rut.

In “The Happening,” we are quickly tossed right in the middle of an unexplainable occurrence that is taking place all over the East Coast. For some unknown reason, people are committing suicide within seconds of each other. It’s chilling in the first few minutes to watch as construction workers heave themselves off buildings. Later in the film you see a group of tree trimmers who have hanged themselves with their own equipment, which is rather jolting.

The tone of the movie quickly plunges when we are introduced to Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Elliot’s best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). The group decides the safest thing to do would be to take a train as far away as they can from the incidences.

But with the mysterious behavior spreading quickly from town to town and no ideas why it’s happening (some think it’s a biological terrorist attack, others believe the plants are emitting a toxic chemical), Elliot, Alma and others find themselves trapped in small town America trying to survive whatever it is that is making people kill themselves.

Shyamalan had a unique idea and desperately wants it to work. But once you get passed the eerie concept, there’s not much left in his screenplay to build on the paranoia. It’s not entirely Shyamalan’s fault, however. Wahlberg and Deschanel give some mediocre performances as a husband and wife going through some minor marriage problems. Their conflict a mild second storyline that is unimaginative, unnecessary, and completely annoying. There is also a lack of chemistry between Wahlberg and Deschanel. They would be worse off if this was a love story, but even in a thriller you would like your leading man and woman not to come off like oil and water or novice actors. Here, they’re a terrible mix.

It’s another strike for Shyamalan, who should think about trying to direct someone else’s work rather than write his own. If “The Sixth Sense” was his one-hit wonder, he should accept that and move on. Trying to relive those moments when his stock was so high seems more desperate than ambitious and it’s just not going to happen if he keeps doing it the same way he has been for the last nine years.

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