Romantic Comedies Are So Down Bad That Not Even Meg Ryan Can Save Them
Meg Ryan’s new film, What Happens Later, ends with a dedication: “for Nora.” No one familiar with the actress’ career will wonder who she’s referring to — if the movie itself wasn’t enough of a clue, her history working with Nora Ephron is sufficient indication that there could possibly be only one Nora she means.
Ephron died 11 years ago, and although there have been good romantic comedies since then — Rye Lane, Bros, Palm Springs, the bitingly satirical They Came Together — it’s awfully tempting to trace the genre’s decline (both commercially and creatively) to her passing. She and Ryan collaborated three times — Ephron wrote When Harry Met Sally, and directed her in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — a trilogy of sorts adored by those who relish a good love story. Add to the fact that Ryan has largely been out of the spotlight in recent years after long being one of the rom-com queens, and it makes What Happens Later’s arrival even more warmly anticipated. It feels like an opportunity to regain what’s been lost.
Sad to say, although it is very nice having Ryan back, What Happens Later mostly succeeds as a reminder of what once seemed so sparkling about romantic comedies. This is Ryan’s second film as a director — she also co-wrote the screenplay (based on Steven Dietz’s play Shooting Star) — and she takes ambitious swings tonally and in terms of subject matter, trying to craft a melancholy, realistic look at grownup love while, simultaneously, sprinkling in some whimsical fantasy. And the way she plays her hard-luck character is often a fascinating reappraisal of her onscreen persona — not that dissimilar from how, say, Clint Eastwood subverted his macho image in later films like Unforgiven. But dedicating What Happens Later to Ephron and actively trying to recreate the genre’s old magic turns out to be not the same thing as delivering the goods. Rom-coms have been in a rut for a while — not even Meg Ryan can save them.
The entirety of the film takes place in an unnamed regional airport, the kind where you have a layover you’re annoyed about on your way to your final destination. As luck would have it, Willa (Ryan) and Bill (David Duchovny) are both there — she’s trying to get to Boston, he’s trying to get to Austin — but they’re snowed in, so they’re going nowhere. Willa and Bill were a couple about 25 years ago, and they haven’t seen each other in forever. This unexpected reunion is awkward, and at first they stumble through some torturous small talk. God, how can they get out of this? But, slowly, they start to warm to each other, deciding to make the best of things. And then the conversation goes into really candid, emotional terrain. Why did we break up? Do you ever still think about me? What if things had turned out differently? In this regional airport, the most important connection they need to make is with each other.
Did that last sentence make you roll your eyes? Well then, you may have a tough time with What Happens Later, which leans heavily on the touchy-feely. Every metaphor is underlined and highlighted. Every gentle irony is driven home so that there’s no chance you’ll miss it. It’s a movie about realizing that true love, seizing the day and being your best self are the most important things in the world. Thinking of insulting What Happens Later by calling it sappy or corny is to miss the point entirely. That’s precisely what Ryan is selling, and that’s what the audience is buying.
Bill has little tolerance for such saccharine. He’s a very serious businessman — he’s involved in finance — and never had much patience for Willa’s brand of magical thinking. Now a masseuse — at least, that’s what she tells Bill — Willa believes in mysticism and signs and all that stuff that a guy like Bill dismisses as nonsense. They are the prototypical rom-com opposites-attract couple — except, of course, they already had their meet-cute way back in the 1990s. But they didn’t live happily ever after— now they’re just middle-aged and trying to figure out what happened to their lives.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, romantic comedies have had a tough time finding success in theaters. Not that they were necessarily thriving before then — more often, you’d find such movies on Netflix and other streamers. Soon, the industry was debating if the big screen would now be reserved for spectacle-driven blockbusters — anything smaller would be relegated to your TV. This was not always the case, with actresses like Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts becoming superstars thanks to rom-coms. Movies as different as Clueless, There’s Something About Mary and Wedding Crashers could be huge hits. But as stars got replaced by franchises and marketable intellectual property, it became a lot harder for studios to invest in romantic comedies, although they’re not nearly as expensive as a superhero film. After all, Hollywood could make a lot more money off the superhero film.
Ryan hasn’t been in a movie since Ithaca, a 2015 drama that was her directorial debut. (You also saw her briefly in Top Gun: Maverick, but that was footage from the original film.) She occasionally made dramas and thrillers, but I think it’s safe to say that most associate her with rom-coms, which also include Joe Versus the Volcano, I.Q., Kate & Leopold and others. Before the wave of manic pixie dream girls of the early 21st century, she played characters who were sensible, funny, smart, quirky, relatable — but definitely not as cutesy as the cinematic love interests who followed her. She seemed more like an adult — not some infantilized, adoring young lady who helps the male character find himself. Her work with Ephron spoke to the real-world concerns of thoughtful individuals navigating their seemingly-impossible love lives.
What Happens Later wants to be an extension of that conversation, focusing on characters in their early 60s. (That’s how old Ryan and Duchovny are, although it appears Willa and Bill are slightly younger.) The boy-meets-girl excitement of youth is gone, and these two have settled into adulthood, albeit reluctantly. She’s single and a bit spiritually disheveled, while he’s slogging through a difficult marriage dealing with a difficult teenage daughter. Is love even something they think about anymore? Amidst responsibilities and general exhaustion, who’s got time to worry about matters of the heart?
This is hardly the first rom-com to feature aging, reunited execs. Nancy Meyers, one of the other preeminent genre masters, gave us It’s Complicated, while George Clooney and Julia Roberts yucked it up in Ticket to Paradise. What Happens Later shares some DNA with those films, but it’s also reminiscent of adult romances such as Last Chance Harvey and I’ll See You in My Dreams, which are here to remind audiences that mature individuals can also find love. And, of course, there’s a whiff of Richard Linklater’s Before films in the examination of how time and distance change people, whether they like it or not.
In pieces, What Happens Later is a thoughtful exploration of these themes, with Ryan playing an unabashedly hippy-dippy woman who has floated through life following her intuition, which has resulted in her getting her heart broken a lot. This isn’t the Sally of When Harry Met Sally: Unlike her most famous roles, Willa is a goofy flake — more manic pixie than when she was the right age to play such characters. But she’s also sadder than Sally and the others — life has a tendency to beat us down — and the movie is fascinating if you consider it Ryan’s attempt to convey what happens to rom-com characters once they reach their 50s. Sure, they seemed “lovable” in early adulthood, but you can’t be that carefree and quippy as you get older. Unfortunately, one of the film’s problems is that Ryan tries to bring that quality to Willa — she’s often aggressively adorable — which doesn’t really work.
It’s not the only way in which What Happens Later undercuts its inherently wistful tone with a forced air of slight wackiness. As Willa and Bill wait in the airport, they occasionally hear the droning intercom announcements about Homeland Security, keeping an eye on your bags and information regarding rescheduled flights. But early on, something strange happens: When this twosome sarcastically responds to the monotonous announcements, the unseen voice… talks back to them. Soon enough, that voice is occasionally offering cryptic advice to help them get back together. Not since L.A. Story has an outside entity been so instrumental to two people who are meant for one another, except What Happens Later handles this fantasy element in a much more self-amused way.
Truth is, the movie treats everything in that same fashion: What Happens Later is far too pleased with itself, far too dazzled by the story’s sorta-magical aura, far too enamored with its interesting but not especially deep characters.
Not that Ryan and Duchovny aren’t fun company. These veteran actors have an easy rapport, and as their characters rekindle the fire they once shared, the chemistry is undeniable. They both ably express that middle-aged feeling of being perpetually frumpled and unsatisfied. Sure, getting stuck at an airport would make anyone feel that way, but while Willa and Bill’s annoyance with modern things can be exasperatingly smug — ugh, cancel culture and this newfangled pop music are the worst! — the actors communicate how everyday life squeezes the love and romance out of people who swore they’d never turn out that way.
Too often, though, our leads are at the mercy of just-okay dialogue that lacks the snap of a Nora Ephron. As much as What Happens Later wants to evoke the gossamer delight of Ephron’s best — to say nothing of all-time greats like It Happened One Night — it doesn’t have that same effortless ineffable spirit. Even when What Happens Later is good, it’s always straining, always exuding maximum effort. You feel its struggle to be the kind of good romantic comedy we don’t get much anymore. As a result, this one isn’t that, either.
Love isn’t dead, but at least up there on the screen, it’s having a hard time locating a pulse.