image credit: Bleecker Street

Review: What Happens Later (2023) *****

In the spirit of movies like Before Sunrise and My Dinner With Andre, What Happens Later is essentially a 1.5-hour long conversation between your dad and the woman he loved when he was thirty. Willa and Bill get snowed into an airport overnight and have a postmortem about their romance, which ended twenty-five years earlier.

When I first saw this movie announced, I promptly ran off to buy and read the stage play upon which it is based. The trailers made everything look so shiny/stylized/simplistic that I kinda thought the leads were dead, and the airport was Purgatory. The title also supports such a reading. I could not get emotionally invested until I knew if this was the case.

I’ll try to refrain from spoilers otherwise, but I’ll tell you this: They’re not dead.


Now that we know these adorable Boomers are alive, we can appreciate what’s actually a stylized rumination about love and life. Romcom sweetheart Meg Ryan has spent much of her career living through the love stories of fictional people who usually never age past their thirties; now she’s “forty-nine years old” (respectful cough) but still thinking about what love means.

Ryan and Duchovny have a great rapport, especially if you’re fond of the kind of romcom where the leads bicker for a while. The development of their relationship throughout the movie changes in a dramatic but expectedly tropey direction, and it all feels very natural.

Like the play, the history between these two is revealed slowly through dialogue as they begin to open up to one another. And once we see how and why the two of them never healed after each other, I got weepy! It was so well-performed. I really didn’t think I could like Duchovny enough to care, but I really, really cared.

The stylized elements make it clear the whole time that these two need to be brought together so they can connect and heal. It’s the most fundamentally romcom element. Turning away from love left them unhealed for years, but as soon as they got back into it, they could find a way to be whole again. It feels like Meg Ryan is shouting the thesis statement of her career into the universe with What Happens Later: Love each other, darnit! Love makes it better!

Meg Ryan’s style as a director is all over this movie, and I gotta say, I love how spacious it is. She likes to give cuts room to breathe. She frames everything like paintings, focusing on composition, geometry, and values in order to create moments that look the way they feel. I would love to see more just like this from Meg Ryan. I know there’s a big appetite for romances featuring people older than thirty-five, forty-five, and older. There’s no age where this message loses its shine. I’m here to support you, Meg Ryan!

This is a really nice holiday romcom that belongs on the shelf with your other warm cozy holiday flicks, although there is more of an HFN than an HEA. But there’s plenty of room to imagine an HEA if you want one. I like how the movie doesn’t *need* an HEA. (I totally am imagining one.)

(image source: Bleecker Street)

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