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Fathers and Daughters:
In Their Own Words
by Mariana Cook
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
The unfortunate lesson to be derived from this ecological mystery is that a script that's no better than those coming out of screenwriting 101 can be made to look professional given the major studio budget, backing and casting. M. Night Shyamalan, writer director of "Sixth Sense" and "Signs," which proved him a master of the supernatural thriller, should be ashamed of not having given his screenplay at least one more draft.
Instead, superb actors like Mark Wahlberg (powerful in "The Departed") and Zooey Deschanel (off-beat spacecadet in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") who have proven themselves at the top of the game in specialty films of very high calibre are left floundering at times with ill-defined roles and a dramatic line that barely exists and gives them little guidance. The great virtue of the film is its brevity, with a tight playing time of 89 minutes.
The enemy is invisible, being some kind of particulate in the air, carried by wind currents and created by heretofore benign plant life. It is introduced in a prologue scene demonstrating its effect on the people enjoying a peaceful day in Central Park, New York. As they breathe the malodious airborne infestation, they freeze in place. They then find ways to kill themselves. An officer uses his gun to shoot himself in the head. Someone nearby picks up the gun and does the same. A woman on a park bench applies the pointed end of her large hair pin to her neck.
In Philadelphia, a town not yet affected by the poison, in a science classroom, we're introduced to teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) convincing his students to make the use of the scientific method part of their lives. It's an extended scene in a relatively short film, making us wonder why so much time is given to what could have been expressed in far less. Uh oh. Is there so little dramatic content in what's coming that a Shyamalan science lecture consumes so much screen time?
While the news channels are soon spouting theories about a bio-terrorist attack to explain what's been happening in New York, Elliot's wife Alma (Deschanel) is concerned about another man's calling her incessantly, which has this wide-eyed, spacy woman in a dither about what hubby will think.
Now, Deschanel has lent a fascinating edginess to all her characters. You could decide to see one of her films just to see how she'll apply this gift for the unusual to the subject matter at hands. A really promising choice for a Shyamalan film, you'd think. But, expectations aren't quite working here.
As the infecting agent spreads, the bio-terrorist theory evaporates and city dwellers are advised to head for the hills and farmlands in order to avoid the population centers where the infestation has been most prevalent. Elliott and Alma hook up with Elliot's colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) and his little girl Jess for a train trip to the boonies. But it's cut short, pulling to a stop in a virtually unknown town where the train crew abandons all passengers to make their way as best they can.
Julian, in phone contact with his wife, fears for her life and asks the Moores to care for Jess while he goes to rescue his wife. The band of passengers are stopped on the road by the sighting of dead humans ahead. Others join them, fleeing more areas of devastation by the windborn thing. Feeling that the end might be near, Alma confesses to Elliot about her phone paramour which she's so far kept hidden from him. Elliot shrugs it off as the triviality it is. Besides, he loves her and has no doubts about her feeling for him and for their marriage. Anything that looks like intermarital conflict is as artificial as the anomaly of nature driving this thing called a movie
The bad thing is now made visible by the effect wind machines have on grasslands and trees. But it's a little late for a Stephen King antagonist to build suspense.
This would, in fact, be the most inadequate rendering of a relationship in any film this decade except for the fact that this honor goes to the affliction of the film itself. This is a student film embarrassment of riches for a filmmaker who is capitalizing on his early success without being able to get back to those days of brilliance and promise. If you thought "Lady in the Water," was a disappointment, wait'll you see this non-happening.
My sorrow goes out to the leads who, you can see, often find themselves making an effort to do something with each moment. Both do a yeoman's job of making the most of it and they can't be faulted if their performances fall flat at key times, having so little help from the script or its writer. Consider it penance for taking the job.
Production is pro, with a soundtrack that does its job well (see below).
One thing you can't fight is the absence of something, like suspense or the third act revelation that generates an intake of breath. Such as the one we experienced in the masterful "Sixth Sense." Such vision for the mind-bending moment doesn't blow in on the breeze--and the conceptual genius it requires makes no appearance here. What might once have been thought the director's trademark seems, in his last two or three films, to have been luck, treasures lost. Extraordinary talents are not served. Nor are our 89 minutes. This major studio release asks the question: how long can you survive on past glories? Shame on Shyamalan.
~~ Jules Brenner