First-time couples looking for a good date movie may want to shy away from "What Happened Was. . . ." On the other hand, the first date on display in this film is so inexorably weird that it might actually make you appreciate your partner. So it could turn out to be a good date movie about a bad date.
Jackie (Karen Sillas) is a secretary in a prestigious law firm. She's been eyeing Michael (Tom Noonan), a bookish type who works there as a paralegal. She invites him to her Manhattan loft apartment for dinner, dresses alluringly, and attempts to draw him out over drinks. Sirens wail faintly in the background. The urban grunge outside seems to have crept indoors, into Jackie's low-lit apartment. This isn't just a bad date movie, it's a bad date movie New York style.
"What Happened Was . . . ," directed by Noonan and scripted by him based on theatrical improvisations, transforms the steady-state anxiety of a first date into a horror scenario. What's shocking--and gruesomely funny--about the film is that it's a familiar horror. Noonan and Sillas capture the feints and pauses and little seductions and infelicities that punctuate The Date. But the movie isn't some '90s-era dating dos-and-don'ts manual for aging singles. It's not likely to provoke gleeful howls of recognition from its audience--it's too strange for that, and too tough-minded.
Just when you think the movie is turning into one of those reveal-your-vulnerability love-fests, it turns a corner on you. The more these people "open up" to each other, the creepier it all seems. Emotional openness in "What Happened Was . . ." isn't a latchkey to love, it's a red flag.
Jackie and Michael's predicament may be generic but they certainly aren't. Their characters have been worked up in highly specific ways--we don't always know where we're going with them. When Jackie reveals that she's been writing a children's book, and Michael agrees to listen to it, what transpires is a real lulu of a monologue. Jackie's story, which careens from fairy-tale innocence into Gothic horror, is probably meant to be taken symbolically but it's too clotted with psychodrama to really function for audiences.
Like Michael, you tune out, but what's important here is that Jackie has suddenly flipped our expectations. Michael has his turn later. His light voice and almost spectral, weightless presence suddenly seem brackish. Noonan is perhaps best known to filmgoers for the creepola he played in "Manhunter" and he can't--may not want to--shake those associations in this film. Michael is a sensitive, broken-down, somewhat delusionary man with a dogged sense of justice: a phantasmal wimp steeled by a need for payback. He claims he's working at the law firm because he's working on a book exposing the legal profession.
As a piece of drama, "What Happened Was . . ." isn't any great shakes; it's essentially an actors' workshop exercise that exists primarily as a showcase for its cast. And because Noonan and, especially, Sillas are so good, it triumphs. (It won the 1994 Sun-dance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.)
Sillas has appeared in two films by the fluky minimalist Hal Hartley, and she can currently be seen to not particularly good advantage as a police detective on CBS' "Under Suspicion." She's a rare sort of actress: forbidding and yet emotionally naked. Sillas doesn't sentimentalize Jackie's desperation in "What Happened Was . . .": Jackie is an innocent with a hard edge. She's looking to be brought out--redeemed--by love. But she is also smart enough to recognize that only minor victories may be possible in her life anymore. She idealizes Michael but she's also a rock-bottom realist when the chips are down. "What Happened Was . . . " isn't much more than a splendid acting exercise but, with all the phony-baloney movies out there about romance, it seems the most honest of the bunch.
\o7 * MPAA rating: R, for language and description of some adult subject matter. Times guidelines: It includes a gory monologue involving child abuse\f7 .
'What Happened Was . . . '
Karen Sillas: Jackie
Michael Tom: Noonan
A Samuel Goldwyn Co. presentation of a Good Machine production of a Genre Film. Written and directed by Tom Noonan. Producers Robin O'Hara and Scott Macaulay. Executive producers Ted Hope and James Schamus. Cinematographer Joe DeSalvo. Editor Richard Arrley. Music Ludovico Sorret. Set decorator Andra Kanegson. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
\o7 * In limited release at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 478-6379.\f7