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What Happens Later

Directed by Meg Ryan
Produced by Laura D. Smith, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams, and Kristin Mann
Screenplay by Steven Dietz, Kirk Lynn, and Meg Ryan
With: Meg Ryan, David Duchovny, and the voice of Hal Liggett
Cinematography: Bartosz Nalazek
Editing: Jason Gourson
Music: David Boman
Runtime: 103 min
Release Date: 03 November 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Sold along the lines of "a romantic comedy directed by the former queen of romcoms," What Happens Later is Meg Ryan's second feature as a director after Ithaca (her 2015 adaptation of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy). The film's title leads one to believe this will be a comedy about what happens after the happily ever after of the typical Hollywood romcom. But What Happens Later isn't really a romcom at all. It's closer to an example of my favorite subgenre of movies, the "brief encounter picture," though in this case, I'd call it a brief re-encounter.

Ryan and David Duchovny play former lovers who get snowed in at a regional airport overnight. Now that they are in their fifties (though they both look considerably older), the personality aspects that drew them together when they were younger but also made them incompatible are clear from the get-go. She's tried to stay true to her counter-culture hippie-chick ethos while he's settled into his buttoned-up businessman persona. They're still just as attracted to and irritated by each other. And since they're stranded indefinitely in the strange limbo of this otherworldly terminal, they relive their past and discuss their present in ways that only happen in movies or, more often, plays.

This single-location two-hander is, indeed, based on a play, Shooting Star by the prolific playwright Steven Dietz. Ryan co-wrote the screenplay with Dietz and Kirk Lynn. But unlike a work for the stage, a film can't be both grounded in reality and constantly dipping into magical artifice. So, the filmmakers opt for the latter, creating a fantasy airport that becomes ever more deserted as time passes, even though no flights can take off due to a snowstorm of beautiful, lightly falling flakes. The situation and dialogue seem close enough to something that could really happen (or at least credibly occur in a movie) that I wish Ryan had opted to play the material straight. I always find more magic in movies that take subtle flights of fancy and invite viewers to suspend our disbelief about a few unimportant logic issues. We can still get wonderful sequences like the one here where the two stars ride around in one of those motorized airport carts and dance to the 1989 song "Pure" by the British pop group The Lightning Seeds.

Movies don't need to constantly announce themselves as whimsical enchantments to support lovely interludes like this one—the most beautifully photographed sequence in a movie that mostly looks rushed and cheap. Almost everything in this picture could still happen in a more down-to-earth telling, apart from the airport announcement voice that speaks directly to the characters, a touch that not only doesn't add much in the way of humor, it makes the proceedings feel silly rather than meaningful. Ryan and Duchovny have a nice chemistry, but I'm not sure why the material couldn't have been altered slightly to reflect their actual ages. It gets darn confusing whenever they talk about the past, and we try to picture them as twenty-five-year-olds in the '90s. Duchovny is especially good at playing the insecurities of a great-looking guy who is now past his prime; why not lean into that? Still, several aspects of What Happens Later resonated with me, and I wouldn't be surprised if I "bumped into it" again.

Twitter Capsule:

Meg Ryan directs and stars in this brief re-encounter about two old flames who accidentally reunite in an enchanted snowed-in airport; an adaptation of Steven Dietz’s play Shooting Star that might have worked better if it hewed closer to reality and the real ages of the actors.