It’s bewildering to think about “What Happens Later,” because it has all the ingredients that make a worthy romantic comedy. Chief among them are rom-com royalty Meg Ryan (the love interest in “When Harry Met Sally” and numerous others) as both director and quirky lead, a cynical co-star (David Duchovny of “X-Files” fame) and a serendipitous setting (an airport).
“What Happens Later” even includes the dedication “For Nora,” in reference to the late Nora Ephron, Ryan’s frequent collaborator and the filmmaker behind modern romantic classics like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Heartburn.” But it’s like dedicating a flimsy watercolor painting to a virtuoso.
What’s missing in “What Happens Later” is outright startling: whimsy. Or maybe it’s heart — or both? Basically, there’s something vacant behind the metaphoric eyes of the film, because there’s nothing going on beneath the surface.
We just watch two former lovers snipe at each other and exchange their laundry lists of grievances after a chance meeting at an airport somewhere in the Midwest. (Location and other specificities never seem to matter in this movie, which attempts to mock the contrivance of the genre and fails.) That’s not fun. It’s not even interesting.
On one end is Willa (Ryan), the spiritual wellness-touting free spirit en route to Boston by way of a majorly delayed flight at an increasingly empty airport caught in a snowstorm. (This place doesn’t even have many human workers — just a buttinsky artificial intelligence named Hal.) She says she’s traveling to console her friend following a marital separation.
On the other is Bill (Duchovny), a straight-laced, uptight corporate man struggling to get to Austin, Texas, on a just-as-postponed flight when he sees Willa, who, like him, is searching for an outlet to plug in her dead cellphone.
“I’m officially a woman with no power,” she says as she plops on a chair. It’s a cheeky line that somehow manages to land like a slippery pot of spaghetti sauce — right on the floor.
(To get this out the way, the characters’ full names are Willamina and William, and both of their surnames are Davis. They were never married; their last names are just … that way. Apparently everything is supposed to be a coincidence, and they refer to each other throughout the film as “W. Davis” — because it’s cute, or something. It’s unclear.)
Anyway, Bill is racked with anxiety because his 15-year-old daughter won’t return his phone calls after he not only misses her dance recital for a business trip, but also dashes her dreams of ever becoming a professional dancer. Though he feels guilty for not being supportive, he points out that she’s just not very good at dancing.
That’s craggy humor, much like the bulk of “What Happens Later.” For nearly two hours, we sit with a pair of astoundingly one-dimensional characters — thanks to a stiff screenplay by Ryan herself, along with Steven Dietz and Kirk Lynn — as they go on about all the things they hate.
Sometimes it’s stuff they wholeheartedly agree on, like Dave Matthews Band and bad airport music. At other times, it’s the things they’re divided on, like the boring cliches these days applied to any character age 35 or older: the internet, social media and using the right pronouns. Then there’s the topic that both Willa and Bill passive-aggressively confront throughout the movie: their breakup.
Which one of them caused the demise of their relationship decades back? What did they never tell each other about it then? These are a couple of the questions that the film asks and answers, but that strangely don’t give either character much more depth. Still, they do leave us with the genre-specific “What if?” That’s not nothing.
But it’s not enough. A rare redeeming factor in “What Happens Later” is Ryan and Duchovny’s chemistry. Theoretically, their humor bounces off each other. Ryan’s eyes roll whenever Bill does the thing — you know, the thing your ex did that annoyed you when you were together. Duchovny shakes his head with satisfaction whenever Willa does something equally predictable.
It works. They work. It’s clear, especially later in the movie when Willa and Bill do the obligatory rom-com dance number in a wide, empty space, that Ryan and Duchovny are having the best time ever. We’re just not.
That’s weird, because — how do I put it? — I’m trying to have fun with it. I feel like it’s all meant for our pleasure. Ryan especially, the one who obviously has more experience in the rom-com department, still endows a genre heroine with messy likability like she has in the past. But beyond what she and Duchovny are giving, “What Happens Later” feels stale.
It’s lifeless, with a lingering sense of “we don’t belong here” defeat that is hard to dismiss and feels uncomfortably tethered to their age — and that’s just lazy. Something Duchovny recently told The New York Times about romantic leads played by two sexagenarians springs to mind.
“They can’t go through those younger rom-com moves — they can’t appear stupid or stunted,” the actor said. “And yet they can’t also be jaded or boring. It was really that dance of, how do we make it legitimate for adults?”
This last question is something that “What Happens Later” never successfully answers. Characters across generations can be daft, stunted or jaded, and these kinds of portrayals should be allowed. Those are real traits that can be used well in a good film. But this movie imbues no life into its characters with any of those things.
There’s not a single thoughtful, adult conversation that happens throughout this film. A lot of words are said — dialogue is continuous in this two-hander — but no ideas are shared, and neither Willa nor Bill seems curious about why the other is the way they are like in, say, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. There’s just an annoyed acceptance.
Some of that is understandable given their age, and where they both are in life. But it is also crucial for a story like this to probe, to be punchy and to challenge its characters. Writer-director Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated,” an astute rom-com that centers older adults, is just one example of that being done well.
Instead, “What Happens Later” ends with a thud, an almost audible concession that it tried. To do what, exactly, remains uncertain. Did it attempt to give us something different? Well, it acknowledges the tropes in the genre that need to be subverted, and it at least offers us a less-than-ideal conclusion.
But the movie says very little about romance, life, love or even aging through heartbreak — or whatever it was trying to get at. It just fades to black, unceremoniously, leaving us with a blank mind. Oh, then comes the “For Nora” dedication, which, well, you know. *Sigh*