Visit, The (2015/II)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/10/15 16:26:05

"Why Grandma, What A Crappy Script You Have."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

On the one hand, "The Visit" is by far the best and most consistent thing that the once revered and now often reviled M. Night Shyamalan has put on the screen since approximately minute 91 of "Signs." On the other hand--and this is a hand about as huge as the one I receive for doing my legendary plate-spinning routine--that says less about the high quality of this one than it does about the string of indefensibly ludicrous disasters that have turned his name from a brand into a warning beacon--"The Village," "The Lady in the Water," "The Happening," "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth," the latter being a work of such profound stupidity that I had actually successfully jettisoned it from my memory until I was reminded of it just last night. This one is clearly a step up in quality from those disasters but the genuine virtues that it possesses wind up being overwhelmed by a screenplay that never quite finds the right tone and which, perhaps not surprisingly, completely falls apart during the third act.

Fifteen years after a horrible falling-out with her parents, Paula (Kathryn Hahn) is contacted by them out of the blue via the Internet. Although she does not want to see them, she decides that it is time for her own children, 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), to meet their grandparents at last and send them off to the remote Pennsylvania farmhouse where she grew up to visit for a week while she goes off on a brief cruise with her new boyfriend. For budding documentarian Rebecca, the trip will hopefully allow her to make a movie about her family and what it was that drove them apart--the entire film is supposedly comprised of her footage (though to call it a "found footage" film would not be entirely accurate). For Tyler, an aspiring rapper and practicing germaphobe with a weird quirk for substituting the names of pop starlets for curse words (a gimmick that is not that funny at first and which quickly becomes grating), it is a week of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and being unable to raise but a single bar on a cell phone. (Plot point!)

Once they arrive, they meet Grandma Doris (Deanna Dunnagan) and Grandpa John (Peter McRobbie) and at first, things go well--Doris is always baking some kind of super-delicious treat and John is an amiable goof. They do have two rules for the kids, however--they need to be in bed at 9:30 PM and stay there and they cannot go into the basement, apparently due to mold issues. These rules might seem slightly odd but as the days go on, things start to get progressively weirder--Doris runs around through the house at night scratching and clawing at the walls, John seems kind of paranoid and has an incontinence issue that he tries to cover up in the strangest manner imaginable. Understandably, the kids are a little freaked out but there is always an explanation to reassure them--Doris suffers from a condition called "sundowning" that causes her to act weird after dark, John is embarrassed by his condition and they are both old, a condition that can freak out kids all by itself. As their visit comes towards its conclusion, though, Rebecca and Tyler are firmly convinced that there is something wrong and try to get to the bottom of what it is. I wouldn't dream of revealing anything, of course, but in a shocking twist, it does involve a shocking twist.

In promoting "The Visit," Shyamalan has claimed that he put together three entirely separate cuts of the film--one that presented the material in an almost entirely comedic light, one in which it was done as pure horror and a third that served as a combination of the two. In the end, he opted for the latter but it is one of the key flaws of the film that it never manages to settle on the right tone. The humorous scenes need a sense of light whimsy to them--the kind that Alfred Hitchcock brought to his cheerfully macabre and entirely sunny black comedy "The Trouble with Harry"--that Shyamalan never quite manages to grasp. Another problem is that much of the film's comedy relief comes from Tyler and his character gets so obnoxious at times that you want to scream whenever he turns up onscreen. (For many audiences, the high point of the film will come when Tyler has an unfortunate encounter with the business end of one of Grandpa's adult diapers.) At the same time, he never quite manages to commit to the horror aspect either--there is a noticeable lack of tension throughout and he seems more interested in tossing out red herrings (ranging from talk about alien abductions to the suggestion that the whole story is a modern-day "Hansel & Gretel") than in resolving the actual tale he is telling. As for the big twist ending--which isn't that big when you get down to it--it turns out to be the worst kind because a.) it doesn't make a lot of sense and raises a whole bunch of questions about its plausibility and b.) it is followed by a long and unnecessary coda that gives viewers plenty of time in their seats to think things over and realize how ridiculous the whole thing was in the first place.

And yet, even though "The Visit" is a film that ends up accomplishing nothing, it does have a couple of things going for it to rescue it from the complete disposability of Shyamalan's recent string of disasters. Although the found-footage gambit in films has now become a visual gimmick as tiresome and lazy as 3-D, the variation on it that he employs here actually works for the most part--outside of a couple of establishing shots that are just a little too pretty for their own good, and another conclusion where people keep on filming even though you would think they would want to put the camera down to free up a hand in the name of defense, it rarely exceeds the narrative parameters to present us with things that we could not have possibly seen otherwise. Shyamalan also has a pretty good handle on actors and he does get some fairly decent performances here--De Jong is smart and sympathetic as our heroine and as the grandparents, Dunnagan and McRobbie certainly throw themselves into their roles with zeal in their efforts to unnerve. Even though Shyamalan once again employs his slow-burn approach to filmmaking--one that impresses when it builds to something that really work and that doesn't when it doesn't--he does come up with one relatively exciting setpiece involving a game of hide and seek under the house between the siblings that goes bad when someone else decides to join in.

If "The Visit" does nothing else--no comment--it serves as one more bit of evidence in building the case that M. Night Shyamalan should stop writing his own screenplays and let others transform his ides into fully-formed narratives. His gifts behind the camera are just not matched by his abilities behind the word processor and the sooner he realizes that, the sooner he can reestablish himself as the cinematic institution that he once was (perhaps finally leading to a continuation of "Unbreakable," by far his best film to date and one of the better superhero movies to boot) and shed his current label as a purveyor of gimmicky, half-baked craptaculars. "The Visit" is a tentative step in the right direction--at least its low-key vibe is preferable to the overblown spectacle of his last couple of films--but in the end, thanks in large part to its dopey script and dopier finale, viewers are likely to walk out of the theater thinking "Man, that was a giant load of Rihanna."

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