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B-Movies, Big Issues
2008-10-18 15:23
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I rented two pretty crummy movies from the McDonald's kiosk last night -- The Happening and You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Both were films geared unabashedly towards the lowest common denominator, presenting gratuitous gore in the former and a nonstop barrage of tasteless sex jokes in the latter. Both movies, I feel, rather undercut their core goals by bringing in sensitive real-world issues that were quite above their modest ambitions.

The Happening, promoted widely as Night Shyamalan's first R-rated movie, should have been publicized more as his first movie not to feature a signature twist. I don't feel at all bad about giving the whole plot away right here, since Mark Wahlberg's science teacher character does so in the first scene in which he appears. The trees are sick of sharing the earth with the humans, and... they're fighting back! (Sadly, the soundtrack passes up on the opportunity to use any Rush songs.) This makes for some scary scenes in the the first ten minutes, as people begin to graphically commit suicide left and right on city streets. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture really lags, since there's not a whole lot of terror to be wrung out of a small group of refugees fleeing death-bringing pollen. Shyamalan, who's a fabulously gifted director, does his best and manages to deliver a handful of whopper scares. But there's also a lot of shots of the wind gently -- ominously, but gently -- blowing the foliage around. Grass is inherently not scary.

The movie is miscast, too. Wahlberg is as he always is. His character seems a little slow, like maybe he's reading his lines off of his wrist, but Mark Wahlberg has always been able to make his radiating stupidity play sympathetic. Zooey Deschanel, on the other hand, is a good actress, but she's hugely out of place here. Her character is supposed to be emotionally distant, providing the friction in her marriage to Wahlberg and the film's one and only subplot, but Deschanel couldn't play emotionally distant if she tried. Her enormous eyes communicate everything she's feeling immediately. Shyamalan's rep lets him bring in better actors than he really deserves for many of the minor roles, and John Leguizamo, Alan Ruck, and even Clerks' Brian O'Halloran all wander through impactless. The director has a real problem with his premise -- the plague kills by making people suicidal, but to show any of his leads actually killing themselves would leave the audience with the wrong final impression of them. So he cuts away, which makes the whole thing feel floaty and inconsequential. Lots of movies kill scores of extras.

Realizing he's losing momentum, Night takes a random detour in the last twenty minutes or so to provide a new antagonist (beautifully played by grand dame Betty Buckley) and a few more arbitrary shocks, including the sight of the kid from The Kid taking a full-barrel shotgun blast right in the gut. Final analysis, the guy hasn't made a half-decent movie since Signs, and ought to try his hand on somebody's else's script one of these days. If Mark Wahlberg can't understand it and passes, that would be a good first step.

As for You Don't Mess with the Zohan, it's pretty minor gross-out fare, save for the vaguely offensive sight of John Turturro and Rob Schneider in dusky makeup playing Arabs. Adam Sandler hasn't made a good old-fashioned Adam Sandler movie in a while, with a stupid voice and idiotic asocial behavior, so in that sense it's nice to see him going back to what he does best. Zohan isn't as funny as Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore, the two Z-grade classics that established Sandler's formula and still lend their names to his production company, but it's in the same spirit. Casting no one else in the movie taller than 5'5" does not make Sandler any more convincing as an untouchable commando, and why exactly his Zohan is such a naif is a mystery. It's not exactly like Tel Aviv is a backwater.

The commando-as-hairdresser stuff is pretty funny, but Zohan's immoderate libido isn't, and the whole subplot with him servicing all of his elderly female customers after he styles their wigs is more disturbing than anything else. The plot, when one shows up about two-thirds into the proceedings, is straight out of Caddyshack II. Sandler works a few laughs out of the premise, but he's not really doing anything to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and I sincerely hope he doesn't view this as an Austin Powers-like franchise. His Israeli accent isn't all that distinguishable from his dreaded Waterboy Cajun accent, and both really wear on the ears after long enough. Also, what is the whole obsession with goats?

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