Second thoughts on a first date

November 11, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"What Happened Was . . ." is an intense two-character drama that follows as the participants in an office flirtation attempt to go up a notch toward an actual relationship, with disastrously unforeseen consequences.

The movie, which opens at the Charles today, is certainly original. It hails from the mind of, and co-stars, Tom Noonan, who almost always plays giant psychopaths to great effect, as anyone knows who can remember Michael Mann's "Red Dragon" (he was the guy with the teeth). Evidently unsatisfied with the giant-psycho niche he had invented, he set about to re-invent himself and his career.

Thus "What Happened Was . . ." -- as suggested by the lyric banality of its title -- is set as far from the exotic world of stalking mutants as possible, It aspires to a kind of raggedly

psychological realism, as each of its characters, over a long evening, reveals fairly pathetic but unspectacular inner demons.

The dramatic gist of "What Happened Was . . ." is the old switcheroo. It begins with a nervous working-class woman who has invited a suave and sophisticated Harvard man up to her place for dinner, where he will nattily amuse her -- that is, if she doesn't mind his natural condescension, smug self-importance and ever-so-unconscious sexism.

But by the end of the evening, much illusion has been peeled away: We learn that each is a good deal less and a good deal more than they seemed in the beginning.

Karen Sillas, who now has her own TV series ("Under Suspicion"), plays Jackie, a character of some desperation. Completely unsure of herself, she tries on a number of outfits in a swivet, settling for what she has on. She takes a pathetic cake out of a box, tries to tuck her hair into something tidy, and panics when the buzzer rings.

One wrong note: She's an executive assistant ("You mean a secretary?" he crudely asks) in a Manhattan law firm, and that's Frank Rich's apartment, or possibly William Safire's. It's a grand aerie, looking out on Soho, with bare wood floors and exposed brick and two walls of huge windows. Easily 6K per month.

But in a more authentic place . . . where would they put the camera? In the hall? Anyway, when Michael (tall, bald Noonan) shows up, the movie takes us where we've all been -- into the desperately clotted, oxygen-starved atmosphere of the first date, where the words tumble slowly and infrequently out of a phlegm-gloppy larynx, if at all, and the laughter is too loud or too slow or too inappropriate.

They look as if they'd rather be tortured by Nazis than undergo this rite; but each also has that patina of despair of the passionately lonely.

It quickly develops that he's the office subversive -- a paralegal who wears a suit to run the Xerox machine, is noted for his brilliance and his wit, but slightly scares the real lawyers. Early on, he lets it drop that he's working on a book that will revolutionize legal theory and blow the lid of jurisprudence. His publisher wants him to hurry, but he insists on taking his time. Boy, is she impressed.

And then she tells him about . . . her book!

Well, the movie goes on like that, peeling away the layers, acquiring by its end quite a powerful psychological intensity, and proving once again that you don't need a budget to make a movie. You need a camera, a script and a couple of good actors.

"What Happened Was . . ."

Starring Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas

Directed by Tom Noonan

Released by Goldwyn

Unrated

***

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