The good news is that Meg Ryan is back after an 8-year hiatus. The bad news is that she chose to return with What Happens Later, a romantic comedy that tries to be funny, whimsical, and deep, but ends up being none of those things. Ryan also directed and co-wrote, so this was obviously a project close to her heart. Anyone who comes to it expecting the next When Harry Met Sally… or Sleepless in Seattle is bound to be disappointed.
The entire story takes place inside an airport terminal on leap year day. Former lovers Wilhelmina “Willa” Davis (Ryan) and William “Bill” Davis (David Duchovny) run into each other during their respective layovers. (The movie thinks it’s funny that the characters have essentially the same name.) When a massive snowstorm indefinitely traps them there, the two end up doing an impromptu post-mortem on their relationship, learning new things about each other – and themselves – in the process.
That’s a promising premise for a rom-com. Ryan chooses to use magic realism to tell the story, though, and she simply doesn’t pull it off. There are implications that the airport itself is conspiring to get Willa and Bill together. A voice speaks specifically to them over the intercom. Signs show them messages and, at one point, a memory from their own past. The longer they’re in the terminal, the emptier it becomes, leaving them alone. An out-of-nowhere dance sequence also factors in. Magic realism can work, as the brilliant 1991 Steve Martin comedy L.A. Story showed. In this case, the fantasy elements are more annoying than enlightening.
That could theoretically be overlooked if Willa and Bill felt like real people, but they don’t. What Happens Later’s dialogue always feels scripted. The characters don’t talk the way actual human beings talk. They speak in phony stylized dialogue that sounds like the product of a writer trying to be clever. Relating to these two individuals is consequently impossible, even though we’ve all been through breakups and/or makeups.
Ryan and Duchovny make an appealing couple, which only adds to the disappointment. Enough spark exists between the actors that you just want to see them in a better movie. A scene partway through reveals the source of a pain Willa and Bill share. It’s the only genuinely sincere moment in the whole film. In that sequence, you can see a glimpse of what might have been. Then everything goes back to being self-consciously cutesy.
The whole vibe of What Happens Later wears extremely thin by the end of 105 minutes. Because of Ryan and Duchovny, we want to engage with these former flames. Poor dialogue and too many distractingly fanciful gimmicks prevent that from occurring.
out of four
What Happens Later is rated R for language, some sexual references, and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.