THE STORY – Snowed-in at a regional airport overnight, ex-lovers Willa and Bill realize they’re still attracted to each other — but also still equally annoyed with each other. As they unpack the riddle of their mutual past and compare their lives to the dreams they once shared, they begin to wonder if their reunion is a mere coincidence or something more enchanted.
THE CAST – Meg Ryan & David Duchovny
THE TEAM – Meg Ryan (Director/Writer), Steven Dietz & Kirk Lynn
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
Stranded in a regional airport struggling to make their connecting flights, former college sweethearts Willa (Meg Ryan) and Bill (David Duchovny) strike up a conversation that leads to a re-examination of their long-ago relationship, how it ended, and who they really were to each other. That’s the whole story of “What Happens Later,” which Ryan also directed. Had the story, adapted by Steven Dietz from his play “Shooting Star,” focused on Willa and Bill’s attempts to make an adult connection with each other, this could have been a fine small-scale drama. Instead, the film buckles under a heavy dusting of magical realism that curdles into a whimsy that does not fit alongside the melodramatic, highly emotional ground that Willa and Bill excavate.
Things do not get off to the best start. The title sequence, which includes some obviously CGI snowflakes dancing with each other over an almost fairy tale-esque score, promises a sweet romantic comedy, but when Willa and Bill meet, it’s hard to feel either the romance or the comedy. The two obviously have a messy history, but the dialogue is abrasive to the point of being a turn-off. On top of that, Ryan and Duchovny are almost completely devoid of their usual charm, exhibiting what can only be called anti-chemistry. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to even be friends with these people, let alone romantically involved with them. The cinematography has a slate blue sheen that gives the film an unappealing look, and the lighting diffusion is entirely off-balance.
However, as the film goes on, something interesting happens. The more Willa and Bill open up to each other, the more sympathetic they become, and Ryan and Duchovny’s performances come alive. The characters are still pretty ridiculous – Willa is a masseuse and healer who is traveling with a rain stick; Bill has been diagnosed with “anticipatory anxiety” – but when they push past their animosity and actually start conversing with each other, they finally begin to feel real.
Unlike most romances, which approach relationship drama in the moment that it happens, this film approaches it years later, with two characters who have learned and grown from the experience. They’ve still held onto private hurts and resentments, though, and both Duchovny and Ryan are able to lock into a rhythm that really feels like two youthful lovers reconnecting a couple of decades after their relationship ended. They’re alternately sweet and exhausting, sympathetic and hateful. They can slip back into their youthful banter at a moment’s notice, but the tone can turn nasty just as quickly, as there’s no reason to sugarcoat anything anymore. When Bill says to Willa, “We have different highlight reels,” it feels like a perfect summation of all relationships that didn’t work out. Everyone remembers everything differently, through their own unique perspective, and no one person is to blame for everything.
No one person is to blame for how “What Happens Later” goes wrong, either. Nearly every moment that Duchovny and Ryan’s land is followed by one that brings the film to a screeching halt, whether it’s a needle scratch off a piece of dialogue, an awkward line reading, or a moment of over-egged magical realism. The film makes multiple attempts to build a sense of fate, magically giving Willa and Bill a push in the right direction, but it ends up making everything feel cute in a way that cheapens the film. For example, Willa and Bill’s full names are Wilhelmina Davis and William Davis, and they often refer to each other as “W. Davis.” The airport’s PA system makes multiple announcements that cause Willa and Bill to repeat the order in frustration, and the PA responds “Yes,” later making more and more direct statements solely to Willa and Bill in the language of a boarding or gate change announcement. Most of all, it often feels as though the airport isn’t even a real space at all, with large areas devoid of any other people and magical romantic lighting. Willa and Bill directly comment on all of this, making it feel even stranger and more grating. Not even Duchovny and Ryan can save this material, instantly losing all their charm whenever they have to indulge in it.
Watching “What Happens Later” is a frustrating experience. Every time you start to open up to these characters and their story, it drops into something that turns you against them and the film, by extension. Then, a few minutes later, the cycle starts all over again. When it’s good, it’s very good – a believably messy story of former lovers reconnecting after too much time has passed, remembering all the reasons why they didn’t work but also wondering, “What if?” But when it’s bad, it’s even worse – a grating experience with two completely unrealistic characters speaking overly scripted lines at each other in the world’s strangest airport. Had the film focused on the heart of the drama and let these two characters engage with their messy history together, this could have been flying high. Unfortunately, what we get stays flat on the ground.