Some actresses are legends within the romantic comedy genre. Meg Ryan is one of them. Now, after a significant absence from acting, she returns to the screen and the familiar genre with her new film. Though What Happens Later doesn’t soar to the heights of some of her previous rom-coms, there is enjoyment to be had while watching this sweet romance.
The parameters of What Happens Later are quite scaled-down and simple. Willa (Ryan) and Bill (David Duchovny) meet again 25 years after their breakup when they’re stranded at a regional airport by a snowstorm. Their past is naturally a focus of their conversation. But so is what has happened to them since they last saw each other. As they discuss their lives, the storm continues and they wait to get flights to where they’re going. The story is very much a contained piece. The only other speaking part besides Willa and Bill is the announcer’s voice over the airport public address system. That means there’s no escaping these two characters and the way they interact with each other, for good and bad.
What Happens Later is mostly average in its execution but a handful of moments that are romantic or funny do stand out. They make the return of Ryan to this hallowed genre worth watching.
“Are you on a trip or a journey?”
If the fact that the two leads are basically the only characters makes this sound like a play, well, that’s because the film is based on one. “Shooting Star” was performed in 2008 and the playwright Steven Dietz is one of the screenwriters here. And, unfortunately, there’s no getting away from a general stagey feel throughout this film. Ryan also directed this film and she makes an effort to vary shot compositions and move the camera. But there’s only so much visual interest to be gained by that. It is noticeable.
The characters fare a little better. Willa and Bill are drawn in broad strokes but get details that make them feel real. Willa is a hippie-ish free spirit while Bill is trustworthy and abides by the rules. He can get his phone charged when none of the outlets seem to work while she writes important phone numbers inside her shoe. As they talk, the kind of conflicts they had when they dated make sense. You can easily imagine what attracted them to each other and the problems they had.
My favorite part about this romance is the fact that the leads are over 40. This is a rare occurrence in Hollywood and it should happen more often. The characters themselves touch on this fact for a laugh, and you are interested in the experience their age gives them. The writing and the acting both contribute to this. There are a few moments where Willa and Bill’s dialogue hits a nice rhythm, while Ryan and Duchovny generate good chemistry. Especially in the more romantic moments in the final act.
“Everything is pending.”
Of course, flaws do creep up. Comedy tends to take a backseat here to more dramatic emotions. The topic of children, for example, is a fraught one for these two people. Though Ryan and Duchovny play that material well, more humor would not have been a bad idea. I think more than a couple of laugh-out-loud moments is a reasonable expectation for this genre. Genuine giggles come from a scene where Bill calls about a hotel voucher, and another scene just as funny would have been welcome.
One element of the storytelling also struck me as odd. The airport’s announcer seems to hear the characters and respond to what they say at certain moments. I have a feeling that came from the play the film is based on because it’s a touch of magical realism that works better on stage. Similarly, the events happen on Leap Day and Willa refers to it as a “magical” day more than once. That feels like a stretch to lend some special atmosphere to the story.
The most important thing in a romance, though, is the progress of emotion between the lead characters. This film is compelling enough to work in that area. As we the audience slowly learn the details of Willa and Bill’s history, it starts to matter that they get back together. And when we find out that the code for his phone is her birthday, no other outcome feels worthwhile for this second-chance romance. What Happens Later can’t claim to be grand in terms of scale or setting but it is a romantic comedy with some effective aspects. Like the return of Meg Ryan. And sometimes, isn’t that all the entertainment we need?
3 stars out of 5
What Happens Later is now playing in theaters.