In What Happens Later, Meg Ryan, the queen of the romantic comedy genre for a run that lasted from the late-1980s to the early-2000s, returns to that genre, both as the leading lady and as director. She dedicates it to Nora Ephron, the late writer of When Harry Met Sally and director of Sleepless in Seattle, both of which starred Ryan. The result is what used to be called genre deconstruction. It feels like a traditional romantic comedy, but it also makes a commentary on the genre, especially with some added time and distance. This is a film more about how these things tend to end up, rather than the more idealized version of Ryan’s vintage films.
Based on a play called Shooting Star by Steve Dietz, What Happens Later starts out with a high concept: Ryan and David Duchovny play old flames who dated in their early-20s, and have a chance meeting decades later in a regional airport in which they’re snowed in. He was always more straight-laced, while she was more of a “flibbertigibbet” (as her character was described, back in Joe Versus the Volcano).
The two catch up, rehash the circumstances of their relationship and breakup, and show potential hints of maybe renewing the old spark. It’s like Richard Linklater’s Before movies, if they’d started with the couple being older. What does go well here is two immensely likable performers, who are rarely seen anymore. Ryan’ been mostly absent from the screen for the last decade or so; she wasn’t even in Top Gun Maverick, with one line of dialogue making clear that her character from the original had died between movies.
Their chemistry with one another is strong. We don’t get many romantic movies these days in which both participants are in their 60s, but What Happens Later is an exception. There’s also an ongoing conceit that both characters are named “W. Davis,” and Duchovny’s character is actually named William Davis, which was also the name of the actor who played his antagonist, The Cigarette Smoking Man, on The X-Files (those weren’t their names in the play, so that’s likely not a coincidence).
What Happens Later had a brief theatrical run, and landed this week on VOD. Flaws and all, it’s worth a look for those who loved the romcoms of the past, and are interested in an honest revisiting.
Since the latest X-Files reboot petered out, Duchovny has starred in (and directed) a bizarre festival film this fall called Bucky F*cking Dent, in which a strained father-son relationship is set against the backdrop of the Boston Red Sox’s collapse in 1978. Let’s just say the Ryan-directed film is better than the one Duchovny directed.