WHAT HAPPENED WAS…
(director/writer/editor: Tom Noonan; screewriter: from the play by Tom Noonan; cinematographer: Joe De Salvo; music: Ludovico Sorret; cast: Tom Noonan (Michael), Karen Sillas (Jackie Marsh); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robin O’Hara/Scott Macaulay; Samuel Goldwyn Company; 1994)
“More like a bad real first date than a movie.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Playwright and actor specializing in bad guy roles Tom Noonan directs in his debut a psychological comedy/drama indie adapted from his play, in which he co-stars and edits under the fictious name of Richard Arrley. It’s a two-character story, set in real time to the date featured. The story revolves around the first date between two lost souls, an ex-suburbanite, lonely, voluptuous, young secretary executive-assistant, Jackie (Karen Sillas), and the lonely, middle-aged, meek, Harvard educated, para-legal, Michael (Tom Noonan), who work in the same large law firm but they never got to know each other. The dinner date takes place in Jackie’s trendy NYC one-room loft apartment, and the set remains static and more stagy than cinematic. The film has its insightful moments, but never aims to be more than a snappy realized character study.
The two find it hard to talk to each other and there are many awkward moments as they search for words and how to relate as the evening gets off to a slow start, as they are not sure if they want to be together or call the thing off. Michael at first seems together and is reticent but academically witty, while Jackie is nervous and inarticulate but somehow sure of herself. Things take a surprising turn as the evening continues when Jackie reads to him a bewildering “children’s story,” which leads to them both opening up in ways not expected. The more they reveal about themselves, the more it becomes clear that they both have in common dark secrets. Throughout the evening the conversation remains prosaic, but there’s an eerie feeling something is not all there for these two mismatched social misfits. By the end of the evening the film changes direction from comedy to drama. Michael shows his long bitterness at the lawyers in the firm and Jackie reads her other stories that are overly violent. They reveal more about themselves than intended in this intense first date, as their workplace masks come off and their desperation is showing.
This cinema verite date experience certainly had a real feel for the ordinary characters it was depicting, in fact it was more like a bad real first date than a movie. The thought-provoking drama superbly catches the urban loneliness of the single scene through their entrapment in the small apartment, which reflects the actual claustrophobia and paranoia in the big city. Both actors were terrific in drawing out their characters, unsure of how vulnerable they wanted to be but getting caught up in the moment and letting up on their guard in order to try and make a connection. The film ends without us knowing for sure if this was a good idea, as the viewer is allowed to have enough intelligence to decide that for herself or himself about the sad and ambiguous ending.
It was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.
REVIEWED ON 1/17/2004 GRADE: B