December 14, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Meg Ryan
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed regional airport in the United States, the comedy/drama film “What Happens Later” (based on the play “Shooting Star”) features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: After not seeing each other for years, two ex-lovers find out that they are taking the same plane flight, and they start arguing about their relationship when they get stuck at the airport after the plane flight is delayed because of a snowstorm.
Culture Audience: “What Happens Later” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Meg Ryan and David Duchovny, because there is very little that is appealing about this annoying and frequently boring movie.
Almost everything in “What Happens Later” shows two former lovers bickering and bantering with each other, after not seeing each other for years, while their plane flight is delayed overnight at an airport because of a snowstorm. “What Happens Later” should’ve been called “What Happens When Co-Stars With No Chemistry Together Try and Fail to Make a Cute Romantic Comedy.” No airport during a snowstorm gets this deserted, although the movie’s awful dialogue is enough to clear a room.
Directed by Meg Ryan, “What Happens Later” was co-written by Ryan, Steven Dietz and Kirk Lynn. The movie is based on Dietz’s play “Shooting Star.” It’s the type of movie where only two people have the on-screen speaking roles. And that means if viewers are stuck with these two people for the entire movie, then these two people better be compelling to watch. Unfortunately, “What Happens Later” makes these two people the opposite of compelling.
Almost everything in the movie takes place at an unnamed regional airport in the United States. The movie’s two main characters are Wilhelmina “Willa” Davis (played by Ryan) and William “Bill” Davis (played by David Duchovny), who used to be college sweethearts, but they broke up about 35 years ago and haven’t seen each other in about 20 years. Willa and Bill were never married. They have the same last name by sheer coincidence.
Willa and Bill had a bitter breakup and still haven’t had closure over it. And so, when they first see each other at this airport, they each try to avoid being seen by the other person. Eventually, they make eye contact and start talking to each other when they find out that they’re both on the same plane flight to Boston.
Willa, who lives “in the woods” north of Boston, is a wellness practictioner in the “healing arts.” She has arthritis in one of her hips and walks with a limp. Willa is carrying a “healing” rain stick with her. She says she’s flying to meet a female friend/client who needs a healing session because the friend is going through a difficult divorce. Willa tells Bill that she’s never been married and has no children.
Bill, who lives in Austin, is a businessman who works for a company that “liquefies a lot of damaged assets,” he tells Willa. When Bill and Willa were a couple, he used to be a poet and songwriter. Bill is married to a woman named Bethany, and they have a teenage daughter named Rose. Bill doesn’t approve of Rose’s wish to become a dancer, because he thinks she should have a more financially stable career. Bill tells Willa that he’s upset because Rose doesn’t want to talk to him.
During the course of this slog of a movie, viewers find out that Willa is still angry at Bill for breaking up with her. The way she remembers it, Bill told Willa that he was breaking up with her because he didn’t like her behavior. Bill denies that he ever said that was the reason for the breakup. Eventually, it’s revealed that when Willa and Bill were a couple, they tried having an open relationship, but he got jealous and resentful that Willa seemed to be having too much fun with her other lovers.
About 15 minutes into the movie, Willa and Bill find out that their flight has been delayed due to a snowstorm, so they are stuck at the airport and have to spend the night there. As time goes on in the movie, the airport unrealistically becomes increasingly empty until at one point in the movie, it looks like Willa and Dave are the only people spending the night at a darkened airport. It all looks so phony and ridiculous.
And let’s not get started on the extremely annoying announcements (voiced by Hal Liggett) over the public address system that sound like lines from a poorly written soap opera, not a real airport. Adding to the cheesiness of it all, the airport plays Muzak versions of 1990s songs such as Sheryl Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake” and Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” The movie’s lighting looks like it’s taken straight from the stage play. Cinematically, it looks like an awkward transition.
The vast majority of “What Happens Later” consists of Willa and Bill spewing repetitive and irritating back-and-forth barbs where they blame each other over what went wrong in their relationship, insult each other, and nitpick over trivial things about their trip. And you know where all of this is going, of course. The “anger” is supposed to really be a mask for the “passion” that Willa and Bill supposedly still have for each other.
The problem is that Willa and Bill are two miserably neurotic people who are obviously not compatible together. There’s nothing in the movie to indicate that a romantic reunion between these two would actually be the right decision for both of them. And because secrets are revealed, Willa and Bill also show themselves to be dishonest with each other. In other words, there’s no good reason for viewers to root for this ex-couple to get back together. Ryan and Duchovny try to cover up their lack of chemistry with smirks and sarcasm, but it all looks so uncomfortable and forced.
Here’s an example of the horribly written conversations in the movie: In an early scene in the film, when Willa tells Bill that her client is fighting for custody of three dogs in the client’s divorce battle, Bill makes this quip that he thinks is hilarious: “You know what they say about a dog who represents herself in court: She has a bitch for a client.”
Willa tells Bill that this particular day is an extra-magical day because it’s Leap Day (February 29). She adds, “On this extra-magical day, are you on a trip or a journey?” When Bill looks confused, Willa explains: “A trip is when you try to reach a destination. A journey is when you try to reach a goal, like serenity or awareness.” Whether you want to call it a trip, a journey or something else, “What Happens Later” is a cringeworthy ride where the best part is when it’s finally over.
Bleecker Street released “What Happens Later” in U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on November 28, 2023.