Thursday, March 4, 2010

What Happened Was... (Tom Noonan, 1993)

(note: this will be my last regular blog before the Godard marathon, which will be starting Monday)

Tom Noonan has, for a long time now, been one of the most recognizable and ominous of all character actors. Tall, slim, and balding, with an icily vacant yet omniscient stare, as if he has intimate knowledge of every fact about you and plans on using it for the most sinister of reasons, Noonan is probably best known for his breakthrough role as the murderous Frances Dollarhyde in Manhunter, Michael Mann's 1986 adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. In addition to his two films with Mann (he also has a small but important role in Heat), the list of directors Noonan has worked with is quite awesome; Cassavetes, Cimino, Jarmusch, Sean Penn, David Gordon Green and Charlie Kaufman, among others. That impressively high pedigree of collaborative history aside, a lesser known but equally as interesting (at least to me) fact about Noonan is that he actually stepped behind the camera twice himself, writing and directing a pair of early nineties independent films, the first being 1993's What Happened Was... , a wonderfully beguiling look at a troubled first date.

This date takes place over a single night in real time, involving Jackie (Karen Sillas), a secretary for an unnamed New York law firm, and Michael (Noonan), a paralegal who works with her. Jackie has had an eye for Michael since she started working for the firm, and has finally made the move to ask him out. As the film opens, she's cleaning her apartment and downing wine in equal measure as she awaits Michael's arrival. The entire movie will take place in this apartment, and after Michael arrives, everything initially goes just fine. They enjoy dinner and an abundance of wine. Michael, an intellectual with a Harvard background, has an answer for everything, and nonchalantly tosses his high-minded opinions around as Jackie becomes simultaneously more impressed and intimidated by him. Michael reveals, after some probing, that he is in the process of writing a tell-all book that will expose the law firm they work for as a corrupt, heartless, money-siphoning machine. Karen eventually reveals that she writes as well; not only that, but she's actually been published. She leads Michael to a small, dark room in the back of her apartment to read him one of her stories, which turns out to be a gruesome modern day fairy tale in the Brothers Grimm tradition. And while it may not be quite apparent at first, this scene is in many ways the turning point of the movie. Watch Michael's face as Jackie reads aloud; his smug demeanor twists into an unsure, nervous pause. He drips sweat, as his eyes dart around the room with an intense caution. From here the rest of the night will take on a kind of volatile life of its own, as we watch and wonder with increasing interest where these two awkward souls will ultimately land.

Cassavetes biographer Ray Carney apparently once deemed Noonan "the greatest living American director", and watching Noonan's screenplay slowly strip the Jackie and Michael characters of their mundane surfaces - revealing the throbbing, naked and frightened humanity beneath - it is awfully tough to not be reminded of what Cassavetes did in his often astonishing work. The acting from both Noonan and Silas is quite marvellous as we slowly watch these two characters' insecurities morph, shift, and eventually converge; they are the key to the movie, and are truly worthy of being called tour-de-force performances. What Happened Was... is also admirable for the way it closes with a certain authenticity; no questions are answered, no easy truths are arrived at, and we are left with a very palpable sense of two people caught in the balance, hanging on for dear life. If it is not apparent by now, let me be clear: I absolutely loved this movie. Unfortunately, Noonan has since directed only one other film (1994's The Wife, unseen by me, but by most accounts equal in quality), before seemingly shifting his sole focus back to his exquisite work as a character actor. Whatever the case may be, What Happened Was... remains a film to seek out and treasure, not only as a top-flight character study, but also as a precursor to a wonderful directing career that sadly never materialized.


J.D. said...

Wow, I haven't thought about this film in ages but I do remember digging the offbeat vibe and uncomfortable moments where you don't know whether to laugh or not. I really like Noonan and would love to see him direct more but I would imagine it must be hard getting financing for his offbeat films.

Thanks for this excellent review and jogging my memory on this underrated and underappreciated film!

Drew said...

I appreciate the comment J.D.

This movie definitely has an "offbeat vibe", that's a good way of putting it. It's also a very honest vibe, and I can't help but feel that, despite the general awkwardness, Noonan was out to mine some pretty heavy human terrain here. Obviously I feel that he was a success in that regard.

I agree that it must be tough for him to get financing; I still have my fingers crossed that he'll find the means to one day give directing another go.