What Happened Was …

What Happened Was …

1994, R, 91 min. Directed by Tom Noonan. Starring Tom Noonan, Karen Sillas.

REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Nov. 4, 1994

First dates - the nightmare potential is boundless. Noonan directs himself and Sillas in what has to be one of the more appealingly awkward recent displays of romance onscreen. Misunderstood jokes, non sequiturs, missed signals, and re-heated scallop casserole: This is dating in the Nineties.

Michael (Noonan), a paralegal at a law firm, and Jackie (Sillas), an executive assistant (“Is that what they call secretaries now?” laughs Michael) are on their first date. Shot in near-real time, What Happened Was … accurately portrays the uncertainty and expectations of two people alone for the first time in a semi-romantic situation. Noonan as Michael is at once vulnerably handsome and something akin to E.T. (look at his fingers). Sillas plays Jackie, who is originally from Long Island, as possessing only average intelligence yet having flashes of genuine understanding and insight.

The real success of What Happened Was … comes from the slippery perspective with which we view the characters. Who is weird and who is normal here? At first glance, Michael seems to be the stable one - Harvard-educated and possessed of a cynical, sly sense of humor. Jackie appears just a little “off,” repeating whole sentences in five-minute intervals and claiming to have a publisher whom she found through an ad in a magazine (“Can you write children's books? Take this test and see.”). Then at some point in the middle of the film the perspective shifts. Now Michael assumes slightly psychotic behavioral tics, and Jackie studies him with cool composure.

What Happened Was … dissects the interminable hopefulness of dating. Noonan, who also wrote the script, has an ear for believable dialogue, and Sillas (Simple Men, Risk) allows every conceivable emotion to ripple across her face, which is a landscape unto itself. Even in the harshness of a studio apartment's fluorescent lighting, Sillas' unconventional, natural beauty is sculpted by cinematographer Joe DeSalvo. While the film's near-real time occasionally proves hazardous, and one or two scenes appear stilted, What Happened Was… is worth the effort. The last film chosen for this year's Sundance Film Festival, What Happened Was … walked away with screenwriting and best picture awards. The film's depiction of the search for romantic companionship is smart, funny, moving, and ultimately unpredictable. As Jackie admits toward the end of their evening, “Yeah, well, dates are weird sometimes.” And, in miscommunication worthy of the popular self-help text Men Are From Mars, Woman Are From Venus, Michael responds, “This is a date?”

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What Happened Was …, Tom Noonan, Tom Noonan, Karen Sillas

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