What Happened Was... (1994) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexuality
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Karen Sillas, Tom Noonan
Director: Tom Noonan
Screenplay: Tom Noonan
Review published October 23, 2004
What Happened Was... is an odd but rewarding film about two employees of a law office who awkwardly stumble their way through their first date together. Based on writer-director-star Tom Noonan's play of the same name, the entire film takes place within the confines of one room, the large New York studio apartment of law office executive assistant (i.e. secretary) Jackie Marsh (Sillas, Simple Men), where she has prepared a meal for the paralegal in her office that she has a crush on, Michael (Noonan, Manhunter). Although they get along well in the office, the different environs, combined with the more personal conversations, makes the two not really know how to behave toward one another, as they struggle to hit a groove.
Acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has heralded What Happened Was... as one of his favorite films of all time, and it's easy to see why. There's a theme of the unsettling that exists throughout, but the premise is easy to relate to, with two people trying their hardest to maintain composure, when deep down they are plagued with self-doubt, while underneath they want to do and say so many things to each other that they dare not let come to the surface. Although simplistic in its design, this is a multi-layered work, which succeeds not only as a character study of two people living in New York, but also as a date movie that many viewers can relate to as an accurate depiction of what it's like to try to connect with a person you only know superficially.
The acting is very good, with both performers offering multi-textured performances that show a range of emotions during the course of events, and also showing several different emotions at once throughout. You can read the pain, anguish, and frustration underneath, even when the participants are smiling and laughing. This is a very nuanced piece, which deservedly won the Grand Jury prize at 1994's Sundance Film Festival, which also saw Noonan take the screenwriting award as well.
What Happened Was... is an inexpensive movie, talky and at many times strange, and so it's not a film that will be embraced by the masses. This is a very personal film, with personal delivery, and the kind of movie that hits home with a certain segment out there, who like films about people over plots, and subtlety over superficiality. What Happened Was... doesn't have a lot happening in terms of events, but underneath the surface level, a great deal happens.
©2004 Vince Leo