In “What Happens Later,” Meg Ryan shines not only in front of the camera but also behind it, as the director and co-writer. This effervescent and enlightened romantic comedy explores the inherent need for reconciliation within ourselves and with others, all through the lens of a former couple’s relationship woes. It’s a delightful return to the silver screen for Ryan after an extended hiatus, in a genre she helped rejuvenate alongside filmmakers like Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron, to whom this film is touchingly dedicated.
Adapting Steven Dietz’s play “Shooting Stars” with Dietz and Kirk Lynn, Ryan puts her own assured spin on the formula, subverting it while highlighting the characters’ witty banter and poignant moments of sorrow. Perhaps she absorbed a thing or two from Reiner and Ephron through creative osmosis.
The story begins with a metaphor of two snowflakes falling from the sky, twirling and mingling in a sometimes harsh dance, eventually descending upon a tiny regional airport. Bill (played by David Duchovny) is on his way to Austin when he spots his Boston-bound ex-girlfriend Willa (portrayed by Ryan) while both are searching for a power outlet. Their reconnection, after 25 years apart, is strained, as small talk quickly devolves into discussing the superficial reasons for their breakup, reigniting insecurities and resentment. The widescreen format emphasizes the chasm between them, with Willa on one side of the frame and Bill on the far opposite end.
Their unspoken desire to part as friends rather than foes seems unlikely until the storm of the century rolls in, forcing them to spend the night together. Their heated conversations oscillate from the state of the world to the state of their lives, with Bill, a practical-minded man suffering from self-diagnosed anticipatory anxiety, going through a divorce and trying to mend his relationship with his daughter. Willa, a free-spirited wellness guru, is also grappling with her own secretive difficulties. As they navigate their feelings about the past and present, they reveal forgotten, uncomfortable truths and reignite a spark that never fully extinguished.
Drawing inspiration from “Destination Wedding,” the film compels its audience to focus on the dialogue between two people rather than the background noise and extras, adding to the film’s authenticity. Despite its theatrical origins, it never feels stagey and maintains a crisp, vibrant energy. The changing set pieces broaden the scope of their function, akin to “Prelude to a Kiss,” allowing the dialogue to flow naturally and without a rehearsed feeling. The sound design heightens the claustrophobic anxiety, especially when contrasting Willa and Bill’s arguments with the storm raging in the background, or the soundtrack’s covers of ’90s pop hits.
Themes of connection and the transient, delicate nature of love resonate brilliantly throughout the film, not just in the narrative but also in the production design, with its giant metallic heart sculpture and paper plane installation. Costume designer Kiley Ogle outfits everyone in shades of black and white, a subtle irony considering Willa and Bill are navigating the gray areas of their viewpoints on the dissolution of their romance. Ryan and cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek illuminate the couple’s darker, more introspective facets.
The announcer, voiced by Hal Liggett, serves as a God-like voice booming from the PA system, while video boards display double-sided commentary, further reinforcing the script’s themes. When it comes to the inevitable montage where the pair explores darkened, empty terminals in a golf cart and dances to “Pure” by The Lightning Seeds in a warmly lit hallway as snow softly falls outside, the charm factor is significantly enhanced.
David Duchovny delivers a nuanced performance, blending comedy with disarming vulnerability, showcasing different notes of sincerity and sweetness compared to his previous work. Meg Ryan delves deeper into her character’s pathos than in previous films of this genre, revealing the sour beneath the sunny facade. The way Willa alternates between calling her ex Bill, W, or William speaks volumes about her fluctuating feelings: playful, honest, or distant. Ryan infuses her character with depth and dimension, making her both adorable and tender.
It’s heartwarming to see the actress who played a pivotal role in elevating the romantic comedy genre continue her journey with “What Happens Later.” Ryan creatively sidesteps genre tropes, favoring authentic character development with a touch of whimsical magic.