Review by Cole Groth
Meg Ryan is no stranger to rom-coms. When Harry Met Sally…, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle are just a few of her critically acclaimed turns as a romance lead. With this fantastic filmography behind her, it comes as no surprise that she’s picked up a lot of information on how to make a good rom-com of her own. What Happens Later is a beautiful new modern reflection on aging romance.
Written, directed by, and starring Ryan alongside David Duchovny, What Happens Later tells the story of two ex-lovers, Willa (Ryan) and Bill (Duchovny), who become stranded at an airport overnight. It’s been years since the two have seen each other, and through a long night of contemplation, the two unpack the riddle of their previous relationships as they forge a bond from the ruins of their connection.
Based on the play Shooting Star by Steven Dietz and with additional writing from Kirk Lynn, this film feels an awfully lot like the stage play it’s based on. I mean that in a very positive way. While it’s not terribly thrilling content narratively, there’s something enthralling about just watching two people bond after years apart. Where this succeeds is in its characters. Bill and Willa are fully realized people who feel more thought-out than the average person put to screen. As a dialogue-driven movie, it’s nice that the two actors feel like they were in love in real life. The two have a lot of chemistry, and their conversations are realistic.
While there’s plenty of sentimentality to be found in this, the comedy is also solid. It’s dry and witty, and feels straight out of the '80s in the best way possible. One of the gags is the airport announcer directly speaking to the two through his announcements, and it’s a delightful running joke. For older audiences, this works because it provides a unique experience to romance movies, and for younger audiences, it’s still accessible on all fronts.
For being set in one location, What Happens Later does a great job of not feeling claustrophobic. It’s very nicely shot, and the production design is fantastic. I love how the airport is set up and explored by the characters. We rarely get a glimpse into what anybody else is doing while the two are trapped in the airport, and in many ways, it feels like their relationship is almost a dream. Bill and Willa quietly move through various lounges and other ends of the airport, turning what’s typically a liminal space into a fantastically romantic place.
By the end of it all, Meg Ryan’s sophomore directorial effort is a great one. It’s full of romance, excellent writing, and humor. The poetic journey the two characters go on is full of great introspection, and after watching it, I feel changed in my views on romance. Providing the perspective of two people in their 50s as romantic leads, this film effectively reinvents the rom-com. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a must-watch.
What Happens Later releases in theaters on November 3.