Urban Chronicles Unveiled: Navigating the Cityscape of Ideas

In the realm of cinema, narratives centered around older individuals discovering love are a rare gem, elusive and tucked away from mainstream abundance. While a handful of cinematic endeavors—think "Something’s Gotta Give," "Mamma Mia!," and "Book Club"—have grazed the surface, they hardly form a copious collection. Often, the most poignant tales, such as Brett Haley’s 2015 masterpiece "I’ll See You in My Dreams," starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, unfold as modest, small-budget creations, hidden treasures awaiting discovery.

The landscape of over-50 romance remains a clandestine genre, a cinematic treasure trove that many yearn to experience yet struggle to articulate. It's the elusive desire we harbor, prompting us to surreptitiously indulge in films like "The Golden Bachelor," against our own instincts. "What Happens Later," under the directorial helm of Meg Ryan, endeavors to breathe life into this genre, working diligently to offer something fresh and unprecedented. However, as I absorbed the narrative, a cloud of discontent lingered—a dissatisfaction that yearned for the molecules of the film to reshape into a version that existed solely in my mind.

Within the frames of the film, Ryan and David Duchovny embody Willa and Bill, former lovers separated by a quarter-century only to find themselves serendipitously marooned in the same snow-stricken airport. The initial sighting is charged with tension—Bill observes Willa in a futile attempt to power her phone, the outlet already proven lifeless. Is this moment a metaphor for the ceaseless quest for what propels us forward? The gears turn in Bill’s mind, contemplating whether to approach her. Moments later, Willa, caught in the act of evasion, fails to hide within the sparse airport crowd. Their reunion is tinged with cautious joy, yet the conversations that follow carry a brittle awkwardness. These are individuals with a shared history, bearing the weight of lived experiences. Whatever unfolds next promises intrigue, even if it ventures into realms of raw, unadorned reality.

Willa and Bill, once entangled in the delicate threads of college romance, found their narrative abruptly severed by a convergence of heart-wrenching events. Willa, now a whimsical massage therapist, clings steadfastly to her '90s-era New Age values, a trait not lost even as she resides in Austin. Her journey to Boston is accompanied by minimal luggage, with a rainstick in tow—an essential tool for a cleansing ritual dedicated to a friend navigating the tumultuous waters of divorce.

On the other side of the spectrum is Bill, a man of corporate stature—his suit and briefcase serving as emblematic shorthand for the essence of his being. Nestled in a wooded house outside Boston, he embarks on a journey to Austin for a business rendezvous. His marital status hangs uncertain, a subtle indication of potential unhappiness. In his confessions, a concern for his daughter surfaces—a budding desire for a professional dance career, clouded by her perceived lack of skill, a source of paternal apprehension.

As the initial exchanges move beyond superficial pleasantries, Willa and Bill find themselves entangled in verbal skirmishes, old wounds reopening in the shared space they now inhabit. The narrative takes a revealing turn, unearthing the roots of their separation and the subsequent tribulations that painted their individual journeys. This isn't merely a tale of lingering regrets or the untrodden paths left behind; it's a narrative of resilience and continuation. Their breakup, though poignant, did not signal the cessation of pain—it merely transformed into a different shade, a testament to the enduring echoes of fractured connections. In the folds of their story lies the nuanced exploration of lives shaped by separation, yet persistently and courageously filled with the myriad complexities of existence.

"What Happens Later" unravels as a refreshing departure from conventional romantic narratives, daring to scrutinize two individuals in all their intricate thorniness. The scars they bear transcend the history they share, etched by the profound, foolish, and sometimes calamitous events that followed their separation. Penned by Steven Dietz, Kirk Lynn, and Meg Ryan, drawing inspiration from Dietz's play "Shooting Star," the film transforms into a two-person exploration within a surreal air terminal—an existential nowheresville with scarce fellow travelers and even fewer amenities.

The airport assumes the role of a third character, an almost-sentient entity punctuating the narrative with cryptic announcements and intrusive interjections into the characters' thoughts, voiced by the enigmatic Hal Liggett. A clandestine figure whose identity remains shrouded even from David Duchovny, the voice's contributor. The movie shines brightest when Bill and Willa meander into the mundane aspects of life, pondering the rise of feline popularity, the youthfulness of bosses, and the whimsical names bestowed upon disastrous weather patterns.

Yet, the film stumbles when it succumbs to cuteness, a misstep that occurs a tad too frequently. A spirited dash through the deserted airport on a luggage cart feels contrived, a fleeting attempt to preserve the zest for life. While Duchovny navigates Bill's character with a suitable and appealing deadpan demeanor, Ryan, synonymous with cuteness from her Nora Ephron comedies era, grapples with letting go of her endearing image. Despite her concerted efforts to emphasize Willa's quirky charm, her most compelling moments arise in the character's gravest confessions, where the facade of adorableness gives way to a more profound authenticity. In its dance between whimsy and gravity, "What Happens Later" becomes a canvas where grown-ups, bound by cosmic closeness, compare notes on the complexities of life—a narrative that shines brightest when it bravely confronts the shadows of vulnerability.

Meg Ryan, initially recognized for her charming presence in Nora Ephron comedies, underwent a transformative evolution in the early 2000s, emerging as a significantly more compelling actor. Beyond the allure of romantic comedies, Ryan's poignant performance in Jane Campion's "In the Cut" marked a departure into deeper emotional terrain. Her excellence continued to unfold in the 2004 film "Against the Ropes," a hidden gem recounting the story of pioneering boxing manager Jackie Kallen—a role that remains underappreciated in the annals of cinema.

"What Happens Later" signifies Ryan's second venture into the directorial realm, following the 2015 World War II-era drama "Ithaca." Evidently, she is reaching for something new, a creative evolution that flirts with unfamiliar territories while perhaps maintaining a tinge of apprehension about completely severing ties with her cinematic past. In this endeavor, "What Happens Later" stretches toward the intangible, striving for things we may not even know how to articulate, a cinematic pursuit that mirrors the essence of being alive.

In its ambitious reach just beyond grasp, the film encapsulates the essence of vitality—an artistic venture that propels beyond the familiar, demonstrating that the willingness to extend oneself into uncharted realms is a testament to the vibrancy of creative exploration. "What Happens Later" becomes not only a cinematic narrative but a palpable expression of the creative spirit, encapsulating the very essence of being alive in its relentless pursuit of the unknown.

In essence, "What Happens Later" unfolds as a poignant testament to Meg Ryan's evolution as both an actor and director. While initially recognized for her charm in Nora Ephron comedies, Ryan's foray into more profound roles, such as those in "In the Cut" and "Against the Ropes," signaled a dynamic shift in her cinematic journey. As she ventures into her second directorial endeavor, it is evident that Ryan is reaching for something new, a creative exploration that pushes boundaries while navigating the delicate balance of embracing change without completely relinquishing the past.

The film, a deliberate stretch toward the intangible and unasked-for, mirrors the broader theme of the human experience—the pursuit of the unknown as a reflection of the vibrancy of life itself. "What Happens Later" emerges as a canvas where grown-up complexities are dissected, and the characters navigate the intricacies of existence with a mix of whimsy and gravity. In its ambitious reach, the film captures the essence of artistic vitality, illustrating that the willingness to step into uncharted territories is a profound expression of the creative spirit. Ultimately, "What Happens Later" not only tells a cinematic story but embodies the very essence of being alive—a celebration of the ever-evolving and unpredictable nature of the human experience.