Some projects presumably gather their own momentum heedless of whether they ought to have gotten rolling in the first place. A first directorial and screenplay feature for actors Judy Greer and Gary Lundy, respectively, “A Happening of Monumental Proportions” boasts a cast of worthy names (down to some significant cameos), no doubt each of whom were attracted by the people who’d signed on before them. Involvement surely seemed like a good idea at the time.
Yet here the film is, sneaking into an unlucky 13 U.S. theaters well after an under-radar festival premiere, and darned if anyone seeing the final result could suss why so much established talent climbed aboard a vessel doomed to sink at the dock. This is one of those mirthless ensemble comedies in which the central mistake is assuming that having a couple “normal” characters afflicted by numerous cartoonishly annoying ones will be hilarious — and somehow life-affirming in the end. There will be worse movies this year yet. But “A Happening” may take the 2018 prize for being the one with the faultiest instincts, and without a single genuine moment.
Everybody’s having a bad day in the sunny Los Angeles environs here. Motherless, bespectacled Darius (Marcus Eckert) once again faces being the friendless new kid at another grade school, thanks to his corporate-fixer father’s constant uprooting. Widower Daniel (Common) arrives at his tedious office job to find the coworker (Jennifer Garner) he’s had a fling with has spilled the beans to her furious husband; there’s also an obnoxious new department manager (Bradley Whitford) breathing down everyone’s necks.
At Darius’ new private school, he’s immediately bullied, then rescued by Patricia (Storm Reid), a classmate whose goodwill he fast wears out by being clingy. The teachers are not having a better time: Music instructor Mr. McRow (Anders Holm) woke up in his car this morning, having been kicked out by his girlfriend. Worse still, Principal Nichols (Allison Janney) arrived early to discover the groundskeeper dead from a presumed heart attack near a manure pile, and is frantically trying to keep the corpse’s presence unknown to students, other staff, and the parents soon to arrive for Career Day.
“Happening” serves up an inedible, steaming school-lunch entree of cutesy cynicism with a cherry of ersatz sentimentality on top. The adults behave like bratty children, the children speak with unnatural precocity, none of it funny or credible. The intended levity is not helped by a current of rote scatology — this is a movie that starts with regurgitation and ends with penis-size comparison. In between, you might be unsurprised that attempts to wring rueful poignancy out of suicidal depression and parent-loss grief fall a tad short.
The script’s stab at black comedy lite might just conceivably have worked — at least better than it does — in a humbler package. But the slick production and array of familiar faces lends an edge of exasperating condescension. There’s nothing quite so gratuitous as a roster of Hollywood successes chummily informing us, “Yeah, life sure sucks for the little guy … but you gotta laugh, right?”
Greer, a frequent MVP in other people’s movies and TV shows, does a perfectly competent job directing thankless material, at least in technical terms. The film is bright and colorful in DP Alison Kelly’s widescreen lensing. Still, it seems to be over-compensating for suspected deficiencies with an excess of various-artist songs soundtracked that sometimes obscure dialogue. And the whole enterprise doesn’t even make it to the 75-minute mark before fleeing for the cover of that familiar padding device, the Seriously Prolonged Closing Credits Crawl.
Those actors who fare best here are allowed to keep a straight face, notably Common, Holm and Janney. The more strenuously other performers reach for laughs, the less their efforts are rewarded, a fate that befalls Whitford, Garner, Rob Riggle, Katie Holmes, Mary Birdsong, and several others, not least Keanu Reeves in the last and most lamentable of several star cameos. All were probably attracted by the prospect of working with each other, and enjoyed the experience. It’s a feeling unlikely to be shared by most viewers.