Instant Review is where I review movies that the Internet told me to watch on the Internet.
Film: What Happened Was… (1994)
Recommended by: Dennis G
Streamed via: Netflix (Also available in it’s entirety for free at Hulu/IMDb)
Instant Review Rating:4 out of 5 Doritos Locos Tacos
The first date. An experience so common, so awkward, so unpredictable, and so filled with exciting and terrifying possibilities that it’s long been exploited by movies of all flavors. Wacky comedy? First date. Romantic comedy? First date. Mentally unstable person descending into a homicidal madness? First date. Cartoon dogs and Italian stereotypes? First Date. Yet for all its pervasiveness the first date is rarely the focus of the story. It exists only to move the things along and communicate something about the characters.
“What Happened Was…” is the exception that gives first dates the full ninety-minute treatment. The entire movie consists of only that first date, in one apartment, in what feels like real time. The only people we see are the two poor souls attempting to get to know each other better. Jackie has invited her coworker Tom over for dinner.
We feel the awkwardness immediately. Oh God the awkwardness. It is not the cute, charming awkwardness we have been conditioned to expect. It feels real and unrelenting. Nervous ticks. Lulls in conversation. That awful labor of finding common interest. You don’t hear internal dialogue but your mind starts to fill it in for the characters. What am I doing? I’m talking about myself too much. They think I’m weird. Did I just say “Birds are dinosaurs”? Be cool!
While Jackie and Tom are bravely pressing on there is a simmering creepiness present, just enough to make one wonder where the film will lead. Wouldn’t a neutral meeting place be less uncomfortable? Why did Jackie want to have this date at her home? Wait, why does Jackie have all those dolls anyways? Why is it so dark in there? And Tom’s leering is starting to look dangerous. Is somebody going to kill somebody? Worse, are we going to have to watch them have sex? The questions intensify as Jackie and Tom continue muddling through basic conversation.
And continue to muddle through small talk is exactly what Jackie and Tom do for the entire first half of the film. Let me remind you that I am very sensitive. Just thinking about how sensitive I am brings me to tears. After about forty-five minutes of this unsettling date I was very much trapped in that apartment with Jackie and Tom. Something needed to happen or I was going to lose my shit.
Finally something does happen, a guard is lowered. The impact of seeing a deeply personal expression after so much stilted shallow conversation is on the mindfuck level, even if it answers very few questions. Suddenly the movie is pulling on sad truths of functional loneliness and tragedy, and how they are both common and commonly hidden.
If you can’t make it through a solid forty-five minutes of two strangers in one room type awkwardness this movie is not for you. The payoff is the emotional resonance of the second half. You feel for Jackie and Tom, and by extension the human condition, because you were with this date for the duration. This is not an easy film to enjoy but those that stick through will feel its lasting impression.