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Welcome Back to Rom-Coms, Meg Ryan! We’ve Missed You

‘What Happens Later’ has an inspiring message for grownups

spinner image Meg Ryan in a scene from the film "What Happens Later."
Meg Ryan stars in "What Happens Later."
Stefania Rosini/Bleecker Street

In What Happens Later (opening Nov. 3), first-time director and cowriter Meg Ryan, 61, finally gets to control her own image. Which, we discover, is a little older, wiser and more melancholy but still vibrant and unique: the glowing girl next door. And, lucky for audiences who have always loved the vivacious, blue-eyed blonde, her new rom-com marks a return after seven years off camera.

Peruse the top 100 contemporary rom-coms and Ryan is always in, or near, the winner’s circle. In the 1990s, she was the muse to the master writer-director Nora Ephron, best evidenced in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, both opposite Tom Hanks. In 1989, Rob Reiner directed her in another Ephron script, When Harry Met Sally, costarring Billy Crystal and the source of the now-classic line, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

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While that may be Ryan’s rom-com trinity, she also glowed in the time-traveling romance Kate and Leopold (2001), the darker When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) and French Kiss (1995). Now, deep in the 2020s, time has slipped by and romance in the digital age is not what it once was.

spinner image Meg Ryan walking on a moving walkway at an airport in the film "What Happens Later."
Stefania Rosini/Bleecker Street

In What Happens Later, Ryan as creator muses, aptly, about what happens to romantic heroines with the passage of time. Her character Willa, a new-age healer in her 50s, shambles onto the screen and into the story’s single location: an airport on the verge of being snowed in. She wears a flowing cotton dress of hippie-wedding white and black Doc Marten combat boots.

Willa is both vulnerable and steel toed. And she has a wonky hip, giving her a limp (one that the actress shares in real life). Even in a crowded airport, she stands out with her corona of wild blonde hair as a nonconformist, refusing to accept the anonymity that enshrouds so many women over 50 in American society, an invisibility that’s visited on singles to an even greater degree.

spinner image David Duchovny in a scene from the film "What Happens Later."
David Duchovny
Stefania Rosini/Bleecker Street

But the snowstorm causes the kind of delay that gives Willa time, welcome or not, to take stock of her life. The inciting incident is Willa’s glimpse of businessman Bill (David Duchovny, 63), handsome, wary and self-assured. In contrast to her romantic threads, he’s in suit and tie, carrying his heavy briefcase like a ball and chain. She recognizes and avoids him. But there’s no escape. It’s a small airport and neither of them is going anywhere.

And, as in Ryan’s famous rom-coms, there’s a spark. There’s also a backstory. Bill was the love of Willa’s college years, her first adult relationship, and vice versa. For each, they’re the one that got away.

What caused the initial rupture? Well, they were young and inexperienced. They didn’t overcome an early serious challenge to their relationship (no spoilers here), and so, when they reconnect, there’s both curiosity and suspicion. They’re measuring each other, even as they measure themselves in the long night between planes taking them to their separate destinations.

spinner image David Duchovny and Meg Ryan sitting in chairs talking to each other in the film "What Happens Later."
Stefania Rosini/Bleecker Street

Duchovny is a comfortable foil for Ryan and a savvy casting choice by the director. Even now, decades later, Bill and Willa can’t avoid falling into the court-and-spark interaction with which they began. He’s a curmudgeon. In his buttoned-down world, she’s a space cadet. As they roam from one seating area to another, and the snow bears down, and it becomes increasingly unlikely they will get on a flight until morning, they experience echoes of the same annoyances, the same laughter, the same love for the rock tunes of their youth. The undertow of attraction is strong.

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The backbeat is whether this chance encounter, like a casual meeting on the Empire State Building observation deck, will change the course of their lives. They scrape away at the emotional scar tissue they’ve built up. They share secret wounds. And, in the way of old-fashioned rom-coms in which the anticipation of the first kiss is everything, they brush lips.

spinner image David Duchovny and Meg Ryan place their foreheads against each other in the film "What Happens Later."
Stefania Rosini/Bleecker Street

For a moment, they cut loose from the past in the darkened, deserted airport. He steals an electric cart and she hops in. They spin around, making figure eights in the semidark and laughing in that brief ecstatic break from their real lives and obligations.

A rom-com on its normal flight path? Not so fast. Here, writer-director Ryan revises the heroine for which she’s noted. In the past, her characters were looking for love as a method of completeness. In What Happens Later, waiting for romance is less of a driving force. Instead, for Willa, and perhaps for Ryan, escaping loneliness has become an existential question, one that she must address on her own.

The lesson — and payoff — of What Happens Later is that like her character, Meg Ryan is the only individual capable of completing herself. Writing and directing this movie, taking control of her image and unleashing her creativity is a leap of faith toward completeness. Ryan has aged, as we all do, but she’s also grown. As What Happens Later demonstrates, the act of trying and discovery is its own reward.

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