Love Movie

What Happens Later

Meg Ryan’s sparkling charm remains firmly intact in “What Happens Later,” her return to movies for the first time in eight years.

Ryan serves as director, co-writer, and star of the film, which is very intentionally a throwback to the kind of feel-good rom-com that made her a superstar. References abound to the 1990s: the decade that gave us such enduring megahits as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” There’s an amusing running bit within the airport that provides the film’s setting involving annoyingly upbeat covers of songs by the likes of Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow. Even the blandly forgettable title feels like it’s in on the joke. What does “What Happens Later” even mean?

And the characters Ryan and David Duchovny play seem like familiar romantic comedy types—at least for a while, until the film’s quirky energy settles down and gives these actors room to actually act. “What Happens Later” is the first film Ryan has appeared in since 2015 and only her second feature directing effort (her first was the historical drama “Ithaca,” in which she played a supporting role), and this material feels more comfortable in her hands and closer to her heart. The dedication at the end (“For Nora”) is a poignant tribute to Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed those classic Ryan comedies.

Ryan and Duchovny star as Willa and Bill, ex-lovers who run into each other in a regional Midwestern airport and find themselves trapped together overnight when a major snowstorm hits. They haven’t seen each other in over 25 years, but it doesn’t take long for them to start bickering and bantering as if no time has passed. Superficially, it seems as if we’ve seen these people many times before. Willa is a middle-aged version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: a “wellness practitioner in the healing arts,” as she describes herself. With her messy, blond waves, boho chic attire, and ever-present rain stick to perform cleansing ceremonies, she almost seems like a parody of the lovably peculiar characters Ryan’s often played. Bill, meanwhile, is buttoned-down and sardonic, a vague corporate type who’s emotionally detached and possessed of deadpan zingers. She’s heading to Boston, and he’s heading to Austin; they are literally going in opposite directions.

How did these extremely different people ever fall in love and spend years together at the University of Wisconsin? That’s what we find out throughout an increasingly intimate and surreal night. If “What Happens Later” feels like a stage production on film, that’s because it essentially is: Ryan adapted Steven Dietz’s play Shooting Star with Dietz and Kirk Lynn. It’s a two-hander, with an omniscient, omnipresent airport announcer providing confusing instructions and, in time, cryptic tidbits of wisdom. The voice is credited to Hal Liggett, but the actor’s true identity remains a mystery.

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