At the end of Meg Ryan’s beguiling and grown-up new romantic comedy What Happens Later, a simple dedication card shows on screen that says “For Nora.” And for star, director and co-writer Ryan, that says it all. After an eight-year absence from the screen, Ryan has returned, both in front of and behind the camera, to a genre that made her a huge star thanks also in large part to the late great Nora Ephron, whose trio of collaborations with Ryan — When Harry Met Sally (directed by Rob Reiner), Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — truly defined what a joyful experience a romantic comedy could be when in the right hands.
Ryan clearly learned at the altar of a master, and it is all on display in this lilting, wistful, magical and wise confection, a two-hander about an accidental reunion of two college lovers some 30 years older. They make a new, if brief, connection while waiting out a snowstorm that has grounded each of them in an airport. This is an inspired location due to the fact that those around them are in a hurry to make literal connections, not the sort that takes these two disparate souls and tosses them into an unexpected reflection of the life that was, the life that is and maybe the life that could have been — or not. In the process, Ryan and her perfectly chosen co-star David Duchovny — who shows his natural comic chops yet again — define screen chemistry, two pros who demonstrate how it should be done and breathe new life into a genre that can go wrong in so many ways but gets it right in every way here.
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A key tenet of most rom-coms is the scene where the two would-be lovers “meet cute.” In this case, though, it is two college sweethearts who meet again “cute,” as Bill and Willa find the universe somehow has dumped them into the same space. As is slowly revealed, they are headed to something very personal that likely will change their lives. Duchovny’s Bill is now a middle-age married man with a daughter doing a performance he is rushing back home to catch. He is very much a guy who really never met what he saw as his potential but gets by in his ordered way. Ryan’s Willa is a bit more of a free soul, quirkily carrying around a rainstick wherever she goes and walking with a persistent limp due to a bad hip. She sees life from a different perspective than Bill, no doubt.
The film’s only other speaking character is the airport’s PA system (Hal Liggett is the credited voice, but the director has teased that might not be his real name). As the night goes on, it seems to be wittily speaking more directly to Bill and Willa, who are now snowbound in this place, their flights on and off, their own connection beginning and ending and continuing as the friendly skies are not so friendly to them and their brief encounter gets extended.
What Happens Later has universal appeal as we watch this pair; they clearly are opposites who maybe should have had that breakup for good reason, but in retrospect, it still seems that both are the one that got away. Willa, though, clearly blames Bill for ending it, and as we see still harbors resentment that picks up right where they left off. Yes, they are older, both with game-changing life experiences, but this single night also might make them a little wiser as they litigate the past, reveal their truths, the decisions they made then and the regrets they now have — all blended into this moment of watching their past collide with the present.
Based on Steven Dietz’s play Shooting Star, which he adapted for the screen with Kirk Lynn and Ryan, you can just see how this two-person encounter could work effortlessly onstage. The miracle director Ryan and her creative team have pulled off is that it feels also so effortlessly cinematic, even though it basically is just two people talking for a couple of hours. Shot cleverly in a combination of two Arkansas locations — one being the airport and the other the iconic Crystal Bridges Museum but both blended to perfection by production designer Jordan Crockett and cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek — this seems like an almost otherworldly place out of time to which Bill and Willa are brought together for a reason unbeknownst to either of them. The location sparkles, the dialogue crackles sometimes like a 1930s screwball comedy, the personal confessions are moving, and the choices Ryan makes, both for this character and the world into which she places her, are right on the money. Having just directed one other feature film, the 2015 period piece Ithaca, what Ryan does here is impressive. But I suppose that is to be expected from someone who has worked with the best and clearly learned from them.
What Happens Later is the kind of thing the studios that made Ryan’s earlier romantic comedies seem to have walked away from. Fortunately, if only this one time, she has brought it back — older, wryer maybe, but just as smart and just as heartfelt. In the process, Ryan and Duchovny deliver two of the year’s best performances.
Producers are Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams, Laura D. Smith Ireland and Kristin Mann.
Title: What Happens Later
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Release date: November 3, 2023
Director: Meg Ryan
Screenwriters: Steven Dietz & Kirk Lynn and Meg Ryan
Cast: Meg Ryan, David Duchovny, Hal Liggett (voice)
Running time: 1 hr 43 min
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