Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Date with Tom Noonan

Who would not want to spend an evening with this man?

At 6'6'' Tom Noonan strikes a rather imposing and eye-catching presence on screen. The first time I saw him in a movie, playing a government hit man in the film F/X, he looked like a rabid giraffe with a gun as he chased Bryan Brown around Central Park. He's often played the master criminal, thug or at the very least, the uncomfortable creepy guy, and he's very good at it. But Noonan also has the ability to portray a sympathy garnering, vulnerable individual who may just turn out to be a good guy. It's this talent that made his character of Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter so intriguing. I never thought I'd root for a serial killer character to romantically win over the girl in a film, but that's exactly what Noonan's performance elicited. Oh, if only "the very protective Mr Dollarhyde" could find true happiness with blind, pretty, photo lab technician Reba, then he could stop setting tabloid reporters on fire and occasionally slaughtering the odd family. For a moment in the film, I actually thought his redemption was a real possibility and it's Noonan's performance that sells it.

In House of the Devil, there is a similar dichotomy with Noonan's character of Mr. Ulman. On the one hand, he's a tall and somewhat creepy, cane-carrying cipher. On the other, he displays just enough desperation, neediness and vulnerability for the lead character of Samantha to be influenced by his entreaties. It's that indecipherability that makes Noonan so much fun to watch. There's something going on behind is eyes, we just have no idea if it's good, benign or malignant until too late. Of course, Noonan himself is fully conscious of this and uses it to maximum effect in the 1994 film What Happened Was... which he wrote, directed and starred in. As his character of Michael says in the film "I'm not like a lot of people, my face doesn't have much to do with what I'm feeling".

Synopsis - A legal secretary has dinner with an office paralegal at her Manhattan apartment.

The movie is basically a two-character stage play which all takes place in the secretary's apartment.
From the opening credits, while co-lead character Jackie Marsh (played by Karen Silas) hustled about her New York City loft in preparation for her dinner guest to the accompaniment of 'Til Tuesday's Voices Carry, I felt there was something distinctly unique about the tone of this film. It wasn't exactly a black comedy, although some of the more awkward moments would have made Todd Solondz giggle. Nor was it a straight drama, as it veered a little into the surreal especially during Jackie's awesomely inappropriate and disturbing children's story. Even the plot description can be misleading. It's not a blind date movie as the characters already know each other. It's not a relationship movie either as the characters don't know one another personally. In fact, Noonan does a very good job of avoiding any type of cinematic cliche from beginning to end which may cause the viewer as much discomfort as the couple in the movie.

But that's not a bad thing. As the story begins, both characters painstakingly attempt not to step on each others toes while simultaneously attempting to communicate their worthiness to one another. It's a dance that we've all done in our lives that is rarely portrayed this realistically on film. It's both fun and painful to watch the miscommunication and miscues that keep the couple taking one step forward and two back in their attempt to connect. But there is no 'battle of the sexes' nonsense nor are the characters shown in a sentimental way a la Marty. Ultimately, the characters are two lost, scared, lonely souls drifting through life without a clue as to how it works. But where other films promise salvation in the arms of Mr or Ms Right, this one points out that, not only are they not the answer, but they may be even less equipped to deal with life than their prospective mates. Not exactly Sleepless in Seattle material, but it feels infinitely more honest than such romantic, feel-good claptrap.

Noonan financed the film with money he received for his parts in Robocop 2 and The Last Action Hero, and much as I dislike those films, I'm happy something as unique and interesting as What Happened Was... grew out of the manure. Technically, the film is a bit grainy but the lighting and particularly the sound design are excellent. Jackie Marsh's loft looks a little big and expensive for a legal secretary, but as we've seen before, movie-New York has cheaper real estate than real-New York. Karen Sillas is every bit as good as Noonan in the film which is no surprise as she has done some solid, edgy work previously in movies like Simple Men, Risk and Female Perversions. After seeing and hearing her in a lot of early Hal Hartley stuff, I had a little difficulty adjusting to her self-imposed, Edie Falco-esque, New Yawk accent which seemed to come and go and really wasn't necessary, but overall it wasn't a great distraction. The film slows down a great deal in the second act, but Jackie's reading and the emotional climax make up for the earlier sluggishness in spades.

Overall, I enjoyed my date with Tom Noonan, and best of all, even though I didn't know what he was thinking, I didn't get killed at the end of it.

Score 7.5/10


  1. Great review! We must have watched this around the same time, as it just popped up on Netflix instant.

    I've been hankering to see this movie for sometime. Charlie Kaufman is apparently a fan, he suggested it to Spike Jonze to watch as an inspiration on Being John Malkovich.

    I agree about the uncomfortable "this is too close to the bone" quality this movie has. That's real honesty, and is to be applauded. Also, for being based on a play, Noonan did a good directing job in making it cinematic. I do agree about the house looking too pricey, but it might have been the only location he could get.

    If folks out there haven't seen this, it's well worth the time. I'd give it about 7.5 as well.

  2. Thanks Dusty. This is just the type of unique, honest film I enjoy, and it's kind of an anti-chick flick because it respects both characters, their intelligence and emotions but isn't afraid to show their real weaknesses either.