Meg Ryan is a skilled dramatic actress, but she will forever be known as a rom-com Hall of Famer for late 1980s and 1990s keepers such as “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” Other than a very few TV appearances and an archival flashback moment in “Top Gun: Maverick,” Ryan has been absent from screens large and small since the 2015 crime drama “Ithaca,” which she also directed.
Ryan returns to directing and also co-stars with David Duchovny in the curious and strange “What Happens Later,” which plays like an extended “TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER” epilogue of a rom-com. (Ryan also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on the 2008 play “Shooting Star” by Steven Dietz.) This might have worked as a short film or a 30-minute TV episode, but as a feature film, it grows increasingly cloying as the minutes tick on.
The wondrous part of “What Happens Later” is seeing Meg Ryan effortlessly winning our hearts once again, playing one Wilhelmina “Willa” Davis, a free spirit who works as a vaguely defined wellness practitioner, writes down phone numbers inside the tongue of her boots and literally carries a rain stick as she meanders around an unnamed regional airport, with all flights grounded due to a “bomb cyclone.”
Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Meg Ryan and written by Ryan, Steven Dietz, and Kirk Lynn. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for language, some sexual references and brief drug use). Opens Thursday in local theaters.
It’s Leap Day, and as fortune and screenplay contrivance would have it, Willa’s long-ago college love, David Duchovny’s William “Bill” Davis — that’s right, they have the same name — is also stuck at the airport. They lock eyes, and off we go on a two-hander that takes place over the course of one long and emotional and mildly amusing but eventually tiresome night in which Will and Bill revisit old wounds, learn some hard and stunning truths about one another and remember why they fell in love in the first place.
Ryan and Duchovny are believable as two fiftysomethings who once loved each other — and left each other —with a burning intensity, and now find their respective lives haven’t exactly turned out the way they’d planned. They still get on each other’s nerves, to the point where Bill says, “Even your silent treatment is noisy,” but there’s also genuine tenderness, and a lingering air of regret about the miscommunications that led to their breakup all those years ago. “Have you ever wondered, what if?” says Willa.
All fine and interesting — but “What Happens Later” stumbles with the device of an unseen airport announcer (voiced by Hal Liggett) making Voice of God proclamations that grow more personal as the night wears on, and in another weird development, the extras playing fellow stranded passengers seem to just … disappear. We know Willa is a magical thinker, while Bill is a practical cynic who plays by the rules, even when there’s no one around to enforce the rules, but the trappings of a fantasy are at jarring odds with the realistic dialogue.
The way Ryan as director stages these scenes, we begin to wonder if this is a fantasy, or a story set in some kind of purgatory, or we’re just supposed to accept these odd developments. When the airport voice intones, “Dear Boston passenger Davis: Don’t lose heart,” what is even happening?
Bill has a habit of saying things are “unsustainable.” He could have been referring to the film itself. There are some lovely moments, as when Ryan and Duchovny dance to the sounds of “Pure” by the Lightning Seeds as the snow falls outside, but with a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, “What Happens Later” proves to be unsustainable.