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.”
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.
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.
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.