In ‘What Happens Later,’ Meg Ryan and David Duchovny Find Bittersweet Sparks as Former Flames

For her first film in eight years, her second as a director, Meg Ryan returns to the genre that made her a star with the romantic comedy “What Happens Later.” The rom-com icon also co-wrote the screenplay, a story about two former college sweethearts who cross paths at an unnamed regional airport in the middle of a snowstorm. While the film has many of the tropes one would expect to see in a movie starring Ryan, the writer-actor-director does venture into some unexpected territory.

Ryan stars as Wilhelmina “Willa” Davis, a crunchy therapist of sorts (she carries around a rainstick), who runs into her old beau, another W. Davis (David Duchovny), on a fateful evening during which she is to change flights on her way to Boston from Austin. Corporate stooge William, or Bill, is traveling in the opposite direction, as he is reluctantly meeting with his young boss in Texas. As they have not seen each in 25 years, Willa and Bill’s reunion is initially awkward. Even after that wears off, the pair still find themselves dealing with unresolved issues surrounding their breakup 25 years prior. Willa is single and childless, while Bill is married with a teen daughter, but it becomes increasingly apparent that he is not living the picture-perfect life Willa thinks he is. As for Willa, she tells Bill she is on her way to Boston to visit an old friend going through a divorce, but she is harboring a secret of her own.

This is a dialogue-driven film, and in its best moments, “What Happens Later” is reminiscent of films like “Before Sunset” and “Lost in Translation.” It is an established fact that normal rules, such as when it is appropriate to drink, do not apply in an airport, which allows for Bill and Willa to let loose in a way they would not in almost any other location, and it is not long before that old feeling comes back. Eventually, Bill comes clean as to why he ended things with Willa, and it has to do with something one does not see coming in a Meg Ryan character.

Ryan shot on location at an airport in Arkansas, as well as at the Crystal Springs Museum, and makes excellent use of the space, giving the film a dreamy feel at times. As the night goes on and their respective flights keep getting delayed, Willa and Bill become increasingly isolated from the outside world, which serves to amplify the rom part of this rom-com. While there are many background actors in the beginning, Ryan and Duchovny are the only two with speaking roles (the story was adapted from a stage play). The highlight of the film is a dance scene in which the viewer can feel the electricity between the two leads. Ryan may be the rom-com queen, but Duchovny brings plenty of the same charm and dry wit he had on “Californication” to the table, and he proves to be an underrated male lead.

Still, not everything in “What Happens Later” works. At 105 minutes, it is stretched thin. If a film is basically just two people talking, their conversation should remain engaging, and this is not always the case here. Willa and Bill’s backstory is also overstuffed. It is enough that these two star-crossed lovers liked to hang out, have sex, and listen to cool music during their halcyon college days, an old tragedy being brought up feels unnecessary. 

What Happens Later” releases Nov. 3 in theaters nationwide.