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It’s easy to see why Meg Ryan would choose a romantic comedy for her return to the big screen after an absence of eight years. It is, after all, the genre that made her a beloved cinematic icon. That’s certainly the marketing hook of her new film co-starring David Duchovny, which also marks her second directorial effort, after the 2016 release Ithaca. But fans of such classics as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle may find themselves a bit perplexed by What Happens Later, which is not so much a rom-com as a comic drama infused with strong doses of magic realism that some viewers will find charming and others insufferably twee.
From its opening moments, the film makes obvious its stage origins — it’s based on Steven Dietz’s play Shooting Star, and has been adapted by the playwright, Kirk Lynn and Ryan. Although it’s set in a small regional airport filled with passengers stuck there during an epic snowstorm, it soon becomes apparent that it’s really a two-hander, with the central pair having the only speaking roles. Apart, that is, from a series of increasingly absurdist announcements on the airport loudspeaker voiced by the only other credited castmember, Hal Liggett. Liggett delivers an amusing voice performance, but don’t bother looking up his credits on IMDb. His actual identity is coyly being kept a mystery. The press notes inform us, “He jumped at the opportunity to disappear into a role. He felt he had the perfect look for the airport PA.”
What Happens Later
The whimsy gets old fast.
Release date: Friday, Nov. 3
Cast: Meg Ryan, David Duchovny, Hal Liggett
Director: Meg Ryan
Screenwriters: Steven Dietz, Kirk Lynn, Meg Ryan
1 hour 43 minutes
The two stars play Willa and Bill, lovers when they were students at the University of Wisconsin 25 years earlier (no, the math doesn’t make sense) who find themselves unexpectedly reunited at the airport when their flights are delayed. Their initially awkward exchanges hint that their coupledom didn’t end happily, and that they’ve matured into people who are very different from each other. Willa dresses in bohemian fashion, carries a rainstick, and describes herself as a “wellness practitioner in the healing arts.” Bill wears a dark suit and is a buttoned-up business type, disgruntledly heading to Austin at the behest of his much younger boss. The characters feel like they’ve been plucked from a book of archetypes.
Stuck together for the foreseeable future, Willa and Bill gradually let down their defenses. Bill, who suffers from “anticipatory anxiety,” literally recoils in pain from hearing the music played in the airport or on the phone while he’s on hold. He and Willa trade wallets, which she claims is the quickest method for catching up on each other’s life. And they rehash the most painful aspects of their former relationship, which include Willa’s sleeping with other men and the miscarriage of their baby.
Meanwhile, the airport grows increasingly deserted, with seemingly every other passenger managing to board a flight. The venue itself appears to be guiding their fates, the PA making cutesy announcements and often directly responding to their comments, like an omniscient version of the one in M*A*S*H, and the electronic signs delivering such messages as “Time Will Tell” and “Only Connect.” The latter message proves instructive: The couple warmly rekindle their affection for each other and eventually dance together through the empty airport.
What might have proved effective theatrically comes across as wholly artificial and schematic onscreen, despite Ryan’s considerable efforts as both director and performer. She attempts to provide visual variety to the single setting, albeit a sprawling one (the feature was filmed, by Bartosz Nalazek, at Bentonville, Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum and Northwest Arkansas National Airport), with repeated exterior shots of the airport and the wintry storm. But the proceedings inevitably feel claustrophobic. While Ryan’s bountiful charm is as evident as ever, her character unfortunately comes across like an older version of the manic pixie dream girl. And the movie’s heavy-handed magical realist elements counter the slightness of the material to deadly effect.
What Happens Later proves engaging at times nonetheless, thanks to the chemistry between Ryan and Duchovny, the latter employing his well-honed deadpan comic chops with excellent results. And the film ends on a lovely grace note with its dedication, “For Nora,” referring to writer-director Nora Ephron, with whom Ryan enjoyed such a successful series of collaborations.