Meg Ryan has returned to rom-coms, but sadly, even one she co-wrote and directed is not worthy of her charm. Ryan co-stars alongside David Duchovny in “What Happens Later,” based on the play “Shooting Star” by Steven Dietz. Ryan co-wrote the script along with playwright Dietz and Kirk Lynn; the film marks her sophomore directorial effort following 2015’s WWII drama “Ithaca.”
In the film, Ryan and Duchovny play two halves of the same whole — literally. Both star-crossed characters are named W. Davis, which the script reminds audiences every ten minutes or so in metronome-like precision. The first W. Davis, William, who goes by Bill (Duchovny), is a former poet and songwriter-turned-stockbroker whose youthful artistic hopes are rekindled after running into his ex-girlfriend, Willa (Ryan). Their bickering turns to banter turns to, yes, an inevitable return to romance as both W. Davises are stuck in a podunk airport 25 years after last seeing each other.
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Actress/director Ryan has compared the film to classic 1940s romantic comedies like “Bringing Up Baby,” and revealed “What Happens Later” was inspired by “When Harry Met Sally” screenwriter Nora Ephron, to whom the film is dedicated. Yet “What Happens Later” makes audiences wonder what they will be doing later after the 105-minute movie is up; as there is only so much quibbling between Bill and Willa that one can take.
Trapped-in-the-airport films, which feels like a wacky sub-genre unto itself, are rarely successful. Sure, “The Terminal,” starring Ryan’s frequent onscreen rom-com counterpart Tom Hanks, is critically acclaimed; does that make it rewatchable? No. And “What Happens Later” falls into a similar category, one that is a decent enough watch on first blush, not quite forgettable, but definitely not a new holiday classic.
Both Bill and Willa are “looking for connection” at the airport, with their respective flights literally being rerouted and reconnected due to a thunder-snow storm. Their initial awkwardness at seeing each other again, complete with Willa trying to hide from Bill, makes for a somewhat promising opening. But “What Happens Later” descends into the quasi-lofty dialogue, musing about life, loss, parenting, and ultimately what could have been between them. Willa reminds Bill that they used to “make fun of small talkers” but the whole film feels adjacent to that: How many platitudes can we take from both W. Davises?
There are sparks of chemistry between Ryan and Duchovny that feel reminiscent of better rom-coms, although none quite matching the films that Ryan is most known for. As Bill and Willa begrudgingly have dinner “together” at separate tables, facing opposite directions, their dialogue ramps up a bit with a better rhythm to the sarcastic jabs. Sadly, this is at the midway point of the movie, with the film never quite hitting its stride, lurching forward yet again until finding respite in another food-centric scene, this time at a bar (also inside the airport) where the tipsy exes no longer get on each others’ nerves and the teasing turns playful…and finally funny.
The film is conversationally-driven, much like “When Harry Met Sally” or “Before Sunrise,” despite both being far superior features. Bill asks Willa if he’s failed at parenting for warning his daughter not to be a professional dancer; Willa reminds Bill that following one’s dreams is the only way to live. The characters have a push-pull between his practicality and her artistic self-described “woo woo”-ness, he’s a stockbroker, she’s a free spirit; it’s a classic formula, one that Hallmark has perfected, and yet it doesn’t seem to come quite so easily to Ryan’s adaptation of the play.
Still, it’s promising to see a second chance love story play out with two non-thirtysomethings onscreen. “What Happens Later,” though, begs for more of that Ryan sparkle, with the airport becoming a purgatorial limbo between Willa and Bill’s respective lives instead of a bridge between them. While their farewell proves they both still have more left to say, the film never lets them say totally it.
A Bleecker Street release, “What Happens Later” will be released in theaters on Friday, November 3.
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