Review: What happened was.. (1994)
Not your typical first date movie.
I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away. – Tom Noonan
What happened was.. was playwright, actor Tom Noonan's directorial debut about two co-workers in a law firm in New York having a dinner date together. Tom Noonan, in his directorial debut, plays Michael, a Kaufmanesque bald paralegal (this film also happens to be one of Charlie Kaufman's favorites) who hides beneath a stoic veneer of learnedness hides the bitter insecurity of not having accomplished much in life. His play-act however has an effect on Jackie (Karen Sillas) who is impressed by the artist's aura Michael wears, hiding her insecurities about being a writer and a woman committed to action. The date doesn't go as planned, with the first date's oddity of mismatched communication becoming the dramatic device to introduce the darker folds of the characters. Michael holds sway over Jackie for the first 2/3rds of the movie, building a legend for himself as a Harvard dropout and a novelist 15 years in the making.
Things take a creepier turn when Jackie reads Michael the first chapter of a children's story she has written and offers to read it to him. Michael being the snob he is asks to listen to it, perhaps to brush off Jackie's simple thoughts. Jackie's story, What happened was.. turns phantasmagorical, going beyond the conventions of a regular children's story. Michael, and us as the audience, are then treated to a ten-minute out-of-body experience as Jackie reads her macabre first chapter from the movie, with the lives of people filtering in from the other apartments and the city lights creating an eerie atmosphere. Michael, who has visions throughout the reading offers Jackie a connection with his publisher, only to be rebuffed by Jackie that she already has one and that the book went to print, which takes him aback.
Through the course of the awkward night, Jackie throws several cues at Michael showing her physical interest in him, which he brushes away. This builds a frustration within Jackie who sees her feelings are unrequited which reaches a crescendo when Michael decides to leave the house without a warning setting stage for his final revelation as a broken couch potato who amasses his knowledge from TV programs and passes it on with his bookish demeanor. It's a harrowing portrait of a man who has to accept the defeat of his intellectual sham: He has no publisher and the book he's working on at the law firm is nothing but make-believe, adding to his persona as a Harvard dropout and perpetual paralegal at a law firm where he could've been doing much better. Jackie listens to Michael and delivers her finest line in the movie, ” we are all where we want to be Michael”.
What happened was.. is a horror movie disguised as a drama, where the horrors reflected are the inner workings of the performative act we put up as humans. This is a forgotten movie washed out by the hype of Pulp Fiction released that year. It deserves a revisit and is a film experience that will stay in the mind for a long, for the questions it asks are the ones we never want to confront.