Meg Ryan deserved better than the reception “What Happens Later” received.
The film hit theaters, oh so briefly, near the end of 2023 and got little press, marketing attention or box office glory.
(This critic attempted to snag a screening link for the film and was ignored. That rarely happens for indie projects)
Ryan, who does double duty as director and star, is synonymous with big-screen romance. Co-star David Duchovny’s comedic chops rarely get a workout. Together, they patch over the story’s flaws and remind us that screen romances don’t start, and end, in your 30s.
Willa (Ryan) and Bill (Duchovny) seriously dated more than two decades ago, and they have a not-so-meet-cute reunion at a snow-bound airport.
She’s never been married and is still a free spirit in almost every way. He’s stuck in a failing marriage and scrambling to connect with his teen daughter.
The former lovers struggle to connect at first, falling back on the dreaded “small talk.” Soon, thanks to a series of magical flight delays, they rediscover why they worked so well the first time around.
Is it enough to spark a reconciliation?
“What Happens Later” is all talk. Seriously.
The film’s spare budget is obvious, and so is the story’s theatrical roots. It’s based on the stage play “Shooting Star” by Steven Dietz, but that production didn’t have stars of this caliber.
Ryan’s Willa gets bogged down in clothes from the Annie Hall collection, but her spirit is impossible to contain. Duchovny’s dry humor is perfect for Bill, a man whose love for rock music is blunted by modern-day anxieties.
The two don’t click immediately on screen. That may be by design, but a swift spark would have helped the film.
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The film’s threadbare budget isn’t a problem, but it’s still surprising given the talent involved. The airport in question is emptier than any seen since the COVID-19 era, but that, too, is by design.
Director Ryan leans into some magic realism for her tale, meaning the overhead announcements often collide with the actions on screen. Plus, the former lovers see snippets of their courtship in monitors throughout the airport.
Ryan doesn’t handle the fantastical elements nearly as well as the fractured romance in play.
It helps that she’s directing the unofficial queen of screen romance, and Ryan the actress hasn’t lost a step. Her Willa is strong-willed and uncertain, optimistic yet wary of another emotional upper-cut.
Each holds a secret, of course, but the screenplay lets them play out in a satisfying fashion.
— Variety (@Variety) November 5, 2023
The reasons this happy couple splintered offers something for Red State audiences. No spoilers here, but like most successful rom-coms the tale’s traditional trappings are never far from the surface.
Ryan wisely leans into that sentiment, treating it with care, not disdain.
Bill’s eagerness to repair his bond with his daughter similarly speaks to solid, American values. Once again, the screenplay applies humor and tenderness in a near-perfect ratio.
The third act offers something resembling closure, but the will-they or won’t-they metric is partially fumbled. “What Happens Later” must “sell” that question, and it comes up short.
Hollywood rarely focuses on older couples falling in and out of love. When it does, we get movies like “Ticket to Paradise” featuring stars who defy their age.
Ryan and Duchovny aren’t kids anymore, and it shows. Their age is the most compelling element in play, making Ryan’s rom-com return an imperfect treat.
HiT or Miss: “What Happens Later” isn’t a return to rom-com form for star Meg Ryan. Instead, it’s a soulful look at love, loss and the chances for a happier ending.