Running into your biggest heartbreak in an airport is a very relatable fantasy. The randomness of the encounter, the forced proximity and the ticking clock of a departing flight all make for a setting ripe with potential for romantic reconciliation or, more likely, cathartic closure. In her sophomore feature behind the camera, star-director Meg Ryan brings this specific fantasy to (magical) reality in “What Happens Later,” a winsome reckoning with love lost and then found, at least for a night.
Ryan, the rom-com queen, star of “When Harry Met Sally…,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” makes her screenwriting debut on the picture, sharing credit with Steven Dietz and Kirk Lynn in the adaptation of Dietz’s 2008 play, “Shooting Star.”
Willa (Ryan) and Bill (David Duchovny) are college exes who share a long-lost romantic history and the same name: W. Davis. They haven’t seen each other in 25 years when they happen to be stranded in the same airport during a snowstorm, while attempting to crisscross the country, swapping Austin for Boston and vice versa. A lot has happened in the years since and, never prone to small talk, Willa and Bill quickly progress to large talk over the course of the night that they’re stranded alone in the airport.
She’s a woo-woo wellness practitioner; he’s a buttoned-up business guy. They’re an odd couple even if they both used to be involved in the ’90s alternative rock scene. Still, the wordy, whip-smart banter flows easily between the two, moving from kinda corny generational riffs to opening old wounds. This kind of dialogue harks back to the rom-coms in which Ryan starred, often written or directed by the late Nora Ephron. (A dedication, “For Nora,” appears at the end of the movie, Ryan paying her respects to her collaborator and inspiration.)
“What Happens Later” does indeed feel like a throwback to those rom-coms of yore, if only because it cruises on this simple but fantastical concept and a full tank of high-octane movie-star chemistry that crackles between Ryan and Duchovny, threatening to combust at any moment.
There’s a scene where Willa and Bill attempt to say goodbye for the first time, only it’s a “bad bye,” as they term this kind of emotional, flustered, unfinished interaction, and it involves a bit of hand acting that is utterly fascinating. Both fumbling, Bill kisses Willa’s hand; she pulls away. He draws her toward him, she extricates herself and gives him a small wave, no hug in sight. This interaction speaks volumes: his desire to comfort and connect, her need to protect herself.
It’s an enthralling moment of a missed connection expressed purely physically and with the kind of natural instincts that Ryan and Duchovny have in spades. The viewer witnesses their emotional journey in their bodies and faces — a draped hand here, a wild, uninhibited dance party there — taking in the electricity between them, not with words but with images and impressions.
Working with cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek (a longtime camera operator for Janusz Kaminski on several Spielberg films), Ryan brings an elegant sense of style to this mundane setting, limiting the color palette to blacks, whites, grays and honey blonds, though the space never looks as drab as a real airport. She stages the action in a way that activates the space and utilizes beautiful compositions and lighting. The falling snow seen through window panes lends to the effect that this pair have found themselves isolated in a surreal but beautiful snow globe.
There is indeed a frisson of magic in the air at this snowbound airport, and it’s not just from the rain stick that Willa’s been carting around. There’s also a sentient announcement voice (Hal Liggett is the credited actor, though Ryan has hinted the name is a front for someone more famous) that seemingly reads their minds and talks back to them, directing them around the space and cutting the lights, forcing them together. The airport also offers plenty of chances for apt metaphors: “making a connection” or “getting power back,” thanks to a phone charger.
Yes, there are a few beats of the screenplay that are a bit hokey (we can officially retire all jokes about pronouns) and maybe some secret revelations that feel forced. But “What Happens Later” is so deeply heartfelt and so beautifully performed that it stirs something within — a hope, not necessarily for an airport rendezvous, but for a moment of healing, the kind that everyone desires and everyone deserves.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘What Happens Later’
Rating: R, for language, some sexual references and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In wide release
This story originally appeared on LATimes