Synopsis: Two ex-lovers get snowed in at a regional airport overnight. Indefinitely delayed, Willa, a magical thinker, and Bill, a catastrophic one, find themselves just as attracted to and annoyed by one another as they did decades earlier.
Stars: Meg Ryan & David Duchovny
Director: Meg Ryan
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: With all the love and respect I can offer to Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, the undisputed queen of the romantic comedy in the ‘90s was Meg Ryan. Through a run of rewatchable hits that started with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally through 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, Ryan was a guaranteed good time at the movies. Unfortunately, her silver streak hit the skids when her personal life crisscrossed with her professional persona on the set of the 2000 stinker Proof of Life. While she had a few near misses in the years since (2001’s Kate & Leopold and an underappreciated remake of The Women in 2008), her career has gone mostly silent.
Ryan stepped behind the camera in 2015, making a modest debut with the period-set drama Ithaca. Surrounding herself with the comfort of longtime costar Tom Hanks and son Jack Quaid, Ryan took a small role but immersed herself in the technical side of the process, and her years in the industry helped her turn in a respectable, if flawed, debut. Eight years later, Ryan returns to her dual roles in front of and behind the camera with What Happens Later. It shows both the growth of an artist stretching in new directions and the sparkle of the charming actress who has been a frequent sick/rainy/snow day companion on-screen to audiences around the world.
Based on Steven Dietz’s 2008 play Shooting Star, Ryan helps adapt the two-hander, opening it up (slightly) to take up more space as it follows a former couple reunited by fate in an airport during a snowstorm. At first, I was nervous that Ryan had worked with Dietz and co-adapter Kirk Lynn and took things too far into fantasy. Changing the names of the characters from Elena and Reed to Willa (Ryan, Joe Versus the Volcano) and Bill (David Duchovny, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines), who cross paths as they are trying to board planes going to the same destinations the other has just come from felt too on the nose. The viewer is already working to decipher if this is straight-up fantasy or a genuine coincidence, but the opening stretch leans hard into wanting you to think it’s operating in some alternate reality where exes with similar-sounding names can meet and hash out their unresolved issues.
Even if I wasn’t aware this was based on a play, the presentational banter and monologuing contained in the script for What Happens Later is a dead giveaway. Still, Ryan and editor Jason Gourson edit the scenes together in a way that breaks up what could be a monotonous conversation that stretches into the echoing darkness of a never-ending night. Filming in an actual airport, cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek has his work cut over for him, especially when it appears there is a mixture of paid background extras and real passengers trying to catch their flight. Look closely in the background (which at times is crudely blurred), and you’ll see people staring directly at Ryan and Duchovny as they walk by or, in one strange instance, filming them on their Smartphones.
For her part, Ryan slips easily into the carefree Willa. You can see what attracted her to the role in What Happens Later, though, because Willa carries an emotional burden she wasn’t expecting to hold on to for longer than a quick plane ride across the country. The effervescent aura that made Ryan so dang charismatic twenty years ago is still present, and she’s matched nicely with Duchovny, who is operating in a far more relaxed mode than he has in years. The two have a natural chemistry, and if the script gives them a few clunkers to spit out, they’re talented enough to massage them into something meaningful. There’s a third character thrown in the mix, an omnipresent voice of the airline terminal announcer. The credits attribute the voice to Hal Ligget, but let’s say that Ryan hasn’t come to her second movie as a director without bringing a close friend with her.
More than anything, What Happens Later further indicates that Ryan is comfortable returning to her rom-com roots but able to blend the more dramatic flourishes she sought before taking a break from Hollywood. Is the movie destined to be an enduring classic? Hardly, it’s too woo-woo in tone and trips over some production and editing flaws that reveal Ryan’s still gaining her footing in the directing arena. We want her to stick around, so tossing support her way now means we will hopefully see more of her later.