Movie Review ~ What Happens Later

The Facts:

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
Rated: R
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. 

Mid-Day Mini ~ Joe Versus the Volcano


The Facts:

Synopsis: When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though Joe Versus the Volcano failed to ignite much spark with the box office or critics when it was initially released in 1990 the film has gained a nice following over the years who can appreciate the film and its oddball charm.  Before Tom Hanks (Splash, Cloud Atlas) and Meg Ryan hit it big with their second and third collaborations (Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 and You’ve Got Mail in 1998) they headlined this quirky comedy that played to both of their strengths.

Set up in the guise of a fairytale, the film opens with average Joe slumping through his dead end (literally) job and keeping to himself as he goes through the paces.  A hypochondriac, Joe’s visit to a doctor (delightfully played by deadpan Robert Stack) and subsequent terminal diagnosis will set him on a life changing mission that will take him into the middle of the ocean to a mysterious island.  Along the way he meets a kooky set of characters that will play a part in Joe learning lessons on living life to the fullest.

Hanks is pretty appealing as a pale sad sack that gradually looses/livens up.  You can see the color returning to his cheeks as he frees himself of his dreaded job, tells off the boss, romances a co-worker, and sets sail for adventure.  Demonstrating the same charm that would prove so valuable in later movies with Ryan, he’s affable and relatable.

An actress also just coming into her own at the time, Ryan deftly handles playing three roles (four, actually, for those eagle eared viewers) of women that Hanks meets on his journey.  The first is his mousy co-worker that loves him but can’t deal with his impending demise, the second is a flighty LA-type that’s not as shallow as she presents herself to be, and finally she’s the fiercely independent woman Joe’s meant to be with…if he didn’t have to jump into a volcano in a few days.

Good support is also to be had in Ossie Davis as a limo driver that shows Joe the finer ways of style as he prepares for his one-way trip, Dan Hedaya as Joe’s comically droll boss, and Lloyd Bridges as the man with the plan that coerces Joe to take a leap of faith.  It’s a well-cast affair and they all make material that could have gone awry work exceedingly well.

First time director John Patrick Shanley already had his Oscar for another modern day fairytale (Moonstruck) and his direction is done with the same light touch that’s applied to his script.  There’s a swell production design from Bo Welch, incorporating familiar points of interest from each stage of Joe’s journey.  The music by Georges Delerue is typically gorgeous…even if it’s essentially the exact same score he produced for Steel Magnolias a year before.

It’s easy to see why audiences and critics in 1990 turned their noses at the film which was probably a little ahead of its time.  It’s absolutely an offbeat romantic adventure that is catered to a specific group of viewers.  Those that are willing to take the journey and can let themselves be taken away by Shanley’s script and two strong lead performances will be rewarded greatly.