Few can compete with Meg Ryan’s rom-com résumé. As the star of three classics penned by Nora Ephron — “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” — she may as well be the mascot of the genre’s late 1980s and ’90s golden era. “What Happens Later,” which she both directs and stars in, is an appropriate homecoming for a seasoned pro.
Ryan and her co-star, David Duchovny, portray Willa and Bill, former lovers who stumble across each other at a tiny regional airport while the two are waiting out a snowstorm. (They share the name “W. Davis,” and the identity confusion is part of what leads to their reunion meet-cute.) With their connecting flights delayed indefinitely, the exes quickly catch up on what’s happened in the 25 years since they last crossed paths. Bill has a steady job and a family in Boston; Willa is a massage therapist and chakra healer in Austin. Clashing personalities lead to petty bickering and some harsh words, but their banter confirms the chemistry is still there.
“What Happens Later,” which Ryan wrote with Kirk Lynn and Steven Dietz (based on Dietz’s play “Shooting Star”), feels purposely lost in time. Its story is bottled within the liminal space of the airport — its exact location remains a mystery — which puts the focus on the two leads trying to reconcile their pasts with their present. Ryan adds a dash of magical realism, turning the airport intercom into a cheeky voice-over that responds to Willa and Bill. These fantasy elements are mostly played for laughs, but the dreaminess and isolation of the darkened airport offer an excuse for Willa and Bill to open up to each other and consider whether their reunion really was determined by fate.
With Ryan and Duchovny both in their early 60s, “What Happens Later” is decidedly a rom-com for those of a certain age, and some familiar, even tired, tropes of that subgenre appear here. Bill complains nonstop about the saccharine pop covers of rock songs playing over the airport speakers — “It used to be rhythm, not algorithm,” he moans, over a cheery Third Eye Blind cover — and he has similar gripes about cancel culture and pronouns. On the other hand, the maturity of its characters allows “What Happens Later” to explore topics not usually found in movies about younger, more wide-eyed couples. At one point, Bill and Willa frankly discuss a miscarriage they experienced back when they were living together — both the pain of the event and all of the thornier emotions each one went through, too.
As you’d expect from a movie about what-ifs, “What Happens Later” is full of sentimentality and primed to be a comforting snow-day watch for the upcoming holiday season. While it’s unlikely to join the rom-com pantheon, its charming leads and humorous truths do invoke the spirit of Ephron, to whom the film is dedicated. It’s a worthy tribute to her, delivered by perhaps the most qualified person to create one.
What Happens Later
Rated R for adult themes and swearing at airport pop music. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.