It’s been years since either Meg Ryan or David Duchovny appeared in a feature film, but now that they’re back, co-starring in a two-hander called What Happens Later, it’s fairly obvious that neither has forgotten anything about charm or how to keep a mediocre movie alive. They’re still appealing. This film is not. It’s a shame, because Ryan co-wrote the tepid screenplay and provided the meandering direction herself. I’m not sure what the title means, but I doubt if What Happens Later implies anyone will want to see it twice.
WHAT HAPPENS LATER ★★ (2/4 stars)
They play Willa and Bill, a pair of ex-lovers who haven’t seen each other since he walked out on her 25 years ago for no valid reason, and she never got over it, recovered from it, or forgave him for it. Now, in a snowstorm, their planes are re-routed, and they find themselves stranded in a regional airport waiting for their canceled connecting flights, with no choice but to pass the time as pleasantly as possible—which, of course, proves impossible.
She lives in Austin and is on her way to Boston to visit her best friend, who is in the middle of a divorce. As one of a tangle of coincidences that make no sense, he lives in Boston but is on his way to Austin on business. Awkward conversation consists of old things from the past: her kooky personality, his motorcycle, the flaws that irritated them both. In what attempts to pass for character development, she has an arthritis-induced hip problem that causes her to limp and forces him to carry all of her baggage, and he has been diagnosed with an anxiety problem that makes him worry about everything.
The incessant talk about nothing of any importance eventually reveals his reason for breaking up years ago, suspecting her of incessantly sleeping around. She says she was totally faithful during their entire relationship, and the affair ended because of various other conflicting, irreconcilable differences. After hours of unspecific verbal babble, it comes as a shock to discover they were both wrong. Both of them turn out to have wasted their lives. She is actually on her way to see a daughter she’s never met, and he has a wife and 15-year-old daughter but is in the middle of a marital crisis.
None of this makes a great deal of sense, and little things like facts, figures and fictional details are maddeningly contradictory. No wonder he changes the subject to argue about the bad things that happened since their halcyon days ended (the switch from fun pop-rock music with melodies you could hum to noisy junk without a dance beat, gun violence, the demise of print journalism) and she counters with the good things (inclusion of minorities, advantages in sports medicine, electric cars, the Internet). But it’s just filler to stretch out a screenplay in which nothing happens, based on a very small play called Shooting Star in which nothing happened. Everything about this movie is small—from the script to the ideas behind the relationship to the cramped, abbreviated look (the whole thing was filmed in an airport in Northwest Arkansas).
What does stick to your ribs is the two stars—daisy-fresh, aging well, and ready for a project that deserves them. Meg Ryan shows enough promise as a director with a confident grip on comedy timing that I am anxious to see her direct a film with more than two characters. They’ve been absent so long that it’s a happy event to welcome them back in such good shape. In the space between appearances, they’ve matured as seasoned artists and developed a touching, intimate rapport. Everything they say seems natural, no matter how trivial, even if they have to say it again. Clearly, Meg Ryan and David Duchovny are ready for a better, more rewarding film than What Happens Later.