Bad dates are a purgatorial experience common to most people who have been single for any length of time. Common, but not identical, however. To paraphrase Tolstoy's (highly questionable!) observation about happy and unhappy families, all good dates are the same, but each bad date is bad in its own special way. Actor Tom Noonan's debut as a writer/director, What Happened Was . . . , is a two-character piece about a really, really lousy date. It's just about the worst kind of date there is, absent physical violence--the intense, emotionally explosive psychodrama that ends frustratingly unresolved.
The filmmaker doesn't appear to see the project this way, though. What Happened Was . . . is being called a comedy and a romance in the production notes, and Noonan, best known for playing psychopaths in action movies (RoboCop 2, The Last Action Hero, Manhunter), claims to have initiated the film out of a desire to do something nonviolent. But while no violence occurs on-screen, the film's atmosphere is charged with a sense of deep, angry, desperate rage that effectively drives out any romanticism, along with any but the most wan, wistful humor.
The story has Michael (Noonan), a lonely paralegal at a Manhattan law firm, invited for dinner one evening to the apartment of Jackie (Karen Sillas), an equally lonely executive assistant from Long Island. They talk a while, awkwardly, and soon learn that both have aspirations to write. They like each other--Jackie especially likes Michael--but they can't quite get the conversation to flow. They keep not getting each other's jokes, and they can't dispel a defensive, faintly hostile tension in the room. We suspect that neither of them is being entirely forthcoming.
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What Happened Was . . . isn't a bad picture. In many respects, it is very well-done, and it comes as no surprise that it was honored at the Sundance Film Festival. Noonan has done a formally impressive job of screenwriting. His structure makes sense, and the dialogue and fumbling pauses are diligently observed and capably acted, with each elliptical clue and subtextual point landing just where it's aimed. The film has a nice look, too. Designer Dan Ouellette and cinematographer Joe DeSalvo have made Jackie's spare, blue-walled pad a sexy and believable place, and there's a superb touch in her decor: Her walls sport both a potrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and a lobby card from Cats--her sweetly naive attempt at both urban glitz and a social conscience. Yet for all the scrupulous good work it contains, What Happened Was . . . isn't an absorbing film for most of its length. It's just two people squirming through an uncomfortable evening together, and that it makes us squirm as well does not, in itself, make it a fine comedy/drama. It doesn't shake us to alertness until around midpoint, when Noonan pulls off a centerpiece scene so much better than the film in which it's embedded that you wish it were the whole movie. Michael politely persuades Jackie to read to him from a "children's story" she's written. To his (and our) surprise, it turns out to be a disturbingly brilliant, Kafkaesque fable full of images of a traumatic, abusive home life. This scene is riveting not just because Sillas (the fleshy, somber-faced beauty from Hal Hartley's Simple Men) gives the monologue such a marvelously tight, unshowy reading (it's the best-written part of Noonan's script), but because Noonan plays Michael's reaction to it so well--he sits there awestruck, realizing that he's in the presence of a genuine talent.
Earlier, Jackie had expressed her love of interpreting the lyrics of the pop songs she favors. After her reading, we realize that this indicated not a lack of taste on her part, but rather an ear for the kind of language that gives a good pop lyric its potency. Although it was conceived as a film from the start, What Happened Was . . . was performed as a theatrical workshop before it was filmed. It may have worked better on the stage, where the spontaneity of live performance could give some flexibility to characters who seem existentially set by the camera. Noonan--tall, dome-headed and painfully thin--really does create the quality of a lonely office flunky, an insecure nerd who refuses to be undignified about his insecurity. And Sillas makes so much stir beneath her surface that she's the major element that makes the film worth seeing.
The ultimate trouble with What Happened Was . . . is that while Noonan's direction is smooth and competent, it's also so slow, leisurely and portentous that it makes it impossible to keep any distance on the characters. Judgment at Nuremberg didn't have an atmosphere this heavy; everything Noonan does with the camera, and every nuance he gets into the performances, screams that these people are each other's last chance for intimacy, that if they pass each other up, it's back to David Letterman forever.
Watching What Happened Was . . . , you never feel that there's any real possibility that Michael and Jackie might loosen up and start having a good time. Except for that excellent reading, nothing really unexpected happens in the whole film, because it can't--having set the funereal atmosphere, Noonan can't disrupt it without seeming to resort either to sentiment or to melodrama. And the characters' dark revelations don't come across as especially revelatory; they seem like stuff at which we could have guessed. A date with a jerk, or with a benignly incompatible match, can be funny later, or sometimes even while it's happening. But seeing two nice, lonely, isolated people failing to make a connection is just depressing. The date in What Happened Was . . . ends gloomily (though this may not be what Noonan intended) and we're left with no sense that this will even make a good war story for these people to tell their friends later. The film, however, might just make a decent first-date pick itself--no matter how poorly you're hitting it off, it has to seem better than this.