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  • Benjamin May

What Happened Was... (1994) Review

Jackie is an executive assistant at a large law firm in New York. One night, she invites Michael- a coworker- for dinner at her apartment. Both of them are nervous, having never been alone together. As the night unfolds and the drinks flow, their conversation turns from awkward small talk to more important issues. Michael is trying to write a book- and has been for 15 years- about the goings on inside the firm. He is something of a pedant, though Jackie has feelings for him. Whether they are reciprocated or not remains to be seen in Tom Noonan's 'What Happened Was...'


A darkly comic, fascinating character study, 'What Happened Was...' is based on Noonan's play of the same name, and is a tense and profound examination of the lives of two lonely people. Essentially a filmed conversation- like 'My Dinner with Andre'- the movie boasts excellent, believable dialogue that ebbs and flows like it would in real life. Never for a moment does one feel as if the proceedings are scripted or staged, and watching Jackie and Michael really get to know each other makes one feel like a voyeur spying on a real conversation.

Noonan's characters are flawed, strange and startlingly realistic. Over the course of their evening together, we learn about Jackie and Michael's lives and desires, and how each of them manages to face a world every day that they find cold and cruel. Unlike 'My Dinner with Andre', which was centred on two rather pretentious and garrulous people, the conversation between Jackie and Michael isn't a constant stream; the film isn't a sparring match between witty monologists. It is a bleak and poignant story of two lonely souls trying to connect, with moments of dark humour and unexpected revelations. 'What Happened Was...' won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival; and rightly so, as it is gripping from start to finish.


Joe De Salvo's cinematography is minimalistic and realistic, as is Andras Kanegson's set decoration and Daniel Ouellette's production design; reflecting the somewhat claustrophobic, intimate nature of Noonan's narrative. The picture was shot in one location, Jackie's apartment, which is decorated simply with objects that reveal aspects of her personality and background. De Salvo makes use of subtle and unobtrusive camera angles, avoiding flashy or dramatic shots which would distract from the dialogue and the actors' understated performances. Minimalist and striking, 'What Happened Was...' contains memorable, muted visuals that enhance the story.

'What Happened Was...' stars Karen Sillas as Jackie and Tom Noonan as Michael, both delivering power-house performances full of subtlety and nuance. They manage to create a believable and complex relationship, balancing moments of tension with humour and attraction with repulsion. Furthermore, they handle the challenges of performing a script based on a play, with a few long, intricate monologues each, without losing the attention or the interest of the audience. Both display the insecurities of their characters marvellously, never resorting to theatrics or going over the top, and share a seemingly genuine chemistry. Understated and powerful; Sillas and Noonan's performances are not easily forgotten.


As is the case with the film as a whole: it is hard to forget. 'What Happened Was...' is a fantastic, believable character study about two profoundly realistic characters that enchants and entertains. Full of dark humour and genuine human drama, the movie showcases Noonan's remarkable abilities as a writer, director, editor and actor. Karen Sillas proves to be his equal, delivering a subtle performance of style and wit, and the muted visuals are striking. In short, Tom Noonan's 'What Happened Was...' really is a night to remember.

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