What Happens Later (United States, 2023)November 04, 2023
What Happens Later represents Meg Ryan’s minimal-fanfare return to the genre that made her a star and that resulted in one of the most fertile female/female writer/actor partnerships in the history of filmmaking. With Nora Ephron providing the words, Ryan made her three classic rom-coms – When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail – during a 10-year period toward the end of the last century. Then, weary of typecasting, she opted for a starring role in the racy In the Cut, effectively ending her reign as America’s Sweetheart. It has been eight years since she last made a movie and double that since she was a regular fixture on the big screen. What Happens Later is an attempt not to reignite the rom-com, which has become a moribund genre trapped on streaming TV, but to argue that Ryan can still be a player some 25 years after she turned her back on it.
Although What Happens Later has fun gently referencing Ryan’s past filmography, it doesn’t overdo it. For example, her age-appropriate co-star (he’s 63, she’s on the cusp of 62 at the time of the movie’s release) is David Duchovny not Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal. Dour Duchovny, the ex-X Files star who spent an awful lot of time wallowing in the debauchery of Californication, is a nice counterpoint to the bubbly Ryan, who remains chipper as she transitions out of middle age. There is some chemistry between them but it comes in fits and starts and doesn’t start giving off any heat until late in the proceedings. There’s a lot of magic realism (notably in the form of an omniscient airport announcer who functions as a Greek Chorus) and Ryan’s character embraces it while Duchovny is skeptical (a flip from The X-Files where he was the believer).
The narrative unspools in the emptiest regional airport in the world during the height of a snowstorm that grounds most of the planes and chases all the passengers away. Past lovers Willa (Ryan) and Bill (Duchovny) haven’t seen each other in 25 years, when he walked out on her, but they are destined not only to reconnect but to work through a lot of ugly stuff as the storm rages outside. Now, they’re going in different directions – he’s a stockbroker headed to Austin and she’s a “wellness practitioner” en route to Boston. For him, it’s a trip. For her, it’s a journey. This is a Before Sunrise sojourn with a Before Midnight tone.
Although Ryan (who directed and co-wrote the screenplay) maintains a superficial rom-com veneer, there are darker issues at play. This isn’t all hearts and flowers, although it ends with one of the former. Most lighthearted romances are forward-looking, with the characters gazing into the future as the end credits arrive. What Happens Later, as the title implies, is more about looking to the past and confronting regrets. Life and love have a different taste when there are more years behind than ahead.
The film’s origins as a stage play (“Shooting Star” by Steven Dietz) are evident. There are no flashbacks, much of the action transpires in real time, there is only a single setting (the airport), and 85% of the film is dialogue. We learn the characters’ backstory through their conversations and come to understand that their breakup was in large part due to miscommunications. What Happens Later neither offers nor promises a “happily ever after” ending. And, although there are instances when the writing crackles and pops, it lacks the zing that Nora Ephron brought to Ryan’s best-known rom-coms. (The movie is dedicated to her.)
There are things that don’t work. The magical realism aspect is overdone. Having the airport announcer (voice provided by “Hal Liggett,” a pseudonym for an actor who is thus far uncredited) interfering in the action is an annoying contrivance and there are times when Willa’s hippie persona borders on a caricature. As if believing the material to be too dry, Ryan tries too hard to make it quirky and those instances, in contrast to the more grounded, believable moments, are when What Happens Later sputters.
Although nostalgia will undoubtedly be a reason for many viewers to give this movie a try, it’s only passingly similar to Ryan’s previous ventures into the genre. This is a more mature project, designed almost exclusively for a slice of older viewers. Like most rom-coms, it is comfort food although it lacks the fantasy element associated with characters who are less seasoned.
What Happens Later (United States, 2023)
Cast: Meg Ryan, David Duchovny
Screenplay: Steven Dietz & Kirk Lynn and Meg Ryan, based on Dietz’s play “Shooting Star”
Cinematography: Bartosz Nalazek
Music: David Boman
U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street Films