Meg Ryan is arguably nothing less than one of the all-time great romantic leading ladies, having earned the accolades with a trio of the defining rom-coms of the ‘80s and ‘90s: When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. She also helped a dozen more reach box office gold — or, at the very least, profitability — thanks to her impressive comedic timing and mainstream adorability. Yet Ryan ultimately shunned that widespread success, her last appearance in a major studio film being Diane English’s 2008 remake of The Women. A simple Google search will uncover hundreds of theories as to why the actress left the limelight, the majority being incredibly mean-spirited tirades which say more about our culture’s objectification of its female stars and how they are tossed aside when some supposed due-by date has been reached. That, frankly, would be enough reason for Ryan to call it quits, but if one were to truly examine the evidence, they might find the actress simply wasn’t getting quality scripts she deserved, shoehorned into a typecasting box from which escape proved impossible.
Ryan certainly tried to exhibit her range over the years, delivering career-best work in the likes of Courage Under Fire and Jane Campion’s excellent In the Cut, but neither audiences nor critics seemed inclined to give her the accolades she so clearly deserved. Perhaps that’s why Ryan finally decided to step behind the camera and take full control of her projects, stories that spoke to her on a personal level and into which she could funnel her passions. Her debut feature, 2015’s coming-of-age drama Ithaca, was seen by virtually no one, despite the involvement of longtime friend and co-star Tom Hanks. It perhaps should come as no surprise, then, that her follow-up, the new flick What Happens Later, is a return to the romance genre that made her a star. Yet those in search of the soothingly feel-good vibes offered by Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron would be wise to look elsewhere, as Ryan has instead crafted what basically amounts to Before Sunset for the AARP crowd, a spiritual sequel to the likes of Seattle and Mail where viewers catch up 25 years after the supposed happily-ever-after and find only bitterness and heartbreak — life, right?. Except, the film never feels like this, because Ryan can’t stop adding cutesy shit that undercuts anything resembling authenticity or emotional honesty. You can take the girl out of the romantic comedies…
Based on a stage show by acclaimed playwright Steven Dietz, who co-wrote the script with Ryan and Kirk Lynn, What Happens Later is a single-location two-hander in which Ryan and David Duchovny play ex-lovers Willa and Bill, who stumble upon each other at some unnamed regional airport as both are catching connecting flights to Boston and Austin, respectively. (The rhyming, by the way, isn’t appreciated.) Yet as fate would have it — or Mother Nature, to be more precise — the snowstorm of the century has caused all flights to be cancelled, leaving Willa and Bill to spend an ungodly amount of time together, resulting in them performing a post-mortem on a relationship that ended 25 years prior. You may find yourself asking, but how is this a two-hander when they are trapped in a crowded airport? Well, you see, the airport isn’t crowded at all, and as the film goes on, the number of extras dwindles until the only two people on screen are Willa and Bill, which is an obvious bit of symbolism that is also far too whimsical for the deadly serious conversations that transpire, as is the inclusion of a seemingly omnipotent airport announcer who is only ever heard over the loudspeaker and possesses the ability to communicate with the couple personally. This affectation reaches a certain point where the viewer begins to wonder if Willa and Bill are actually dead and trapped in some Sartrean purgatory, forced to spend eternity dissecting their relationship, and it’s near impossible to tell if this was done intentionally by Ryan and her co-writers as a sort of commentary on the film itself and its premise, or if its just sheer happenstance.
There’s certainly nothing else going on here, visually or thematically. Ryan is by no means a terrible filmmaker, but most of the shots are obvious compositions, showing little in the way of artistry, save for a few playful moments that utilize the set’s moving walkways and reflections, the definition of a stage adaptation that feels exactly as such. Ryan and Duchovny do share a fair amount of chemistry, and the proceedings spark to life whenever the two are allowed to let their guards down and have a little fun with the material. That both of these instances involve alcohol consumption isn’t ideal, but the levity is at least appreciated when it arrives; otherwise, we’re just left to listen to a lot of volatile conversations about everything from miscarriages to bad parenting, and that’s before even mentioning the film’s rather gross conservative streak in regards to ethical non-monogamy — the script at one point even has the audacity to trot out the phrase “traditional values.” Willa is also rendered as a New Age caricature who walks around with a giant chakra stick, because even the film’s jokes seemingly couldn’t escape the ’90s. Decade-specific bonus points, however, are awarded for a soundtrack that features godawful but entirely airport-appropriate covers of half-century-ago hits that were popular during the time of Willa and Bill’s relationship, including the likes of Third Eye Blind, Sheryl Crow, and the New Radicals. The film could have used more of that idiosyncrasy and less of the wish fulfillment that ultimately takes over the proceedings, cementing it as a work that want to both have and eat cake. Still, for all its many flaws, there’s no denying the pleasure of seeing Ryan on the big screen again; viewers are now left to hope it won’t be another 15 years, and that the final product won’t be nearly as middling as What Happens Later.
DIRECTOR: Meg Ryan; CAST: Meg Ryan, David Duchovny; DISTRIBUTOR: Bleecker Street; IN THEATERS: November 3; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 43 min.