Movies about older people falling in love are rare these days, but outside of a few rare hits—Something’s Gotta Give, Mamma Mia!, Book Club—they’ve never been exactly plentiful. In fact, some of the best ones, like Brett Haley’s bittersweet 2015 I’ll See You in My Dreams, starring Blythe Danner as a seventyish retired teacher and Sam Elliott as the tall drink of water who woos her—have been small-budget pictures that audiences have had to find on their own. The over-50 romance is almost a secret genre unto itself. These are the types of movies many of us long to see but don’t even begin to know how to ask for; it’s why we watch The Golden Bachelor, almost against our better instincts.
What Happens Later, directed by Meg Ryan, works so hard at trying to give us something fresh and novel that I couldn’t help wishing it were better: the cloud of dissatisfaction I felt after watching it kept trying to reshape its molecules into a better movie, albeit one that could live only in my head. Ryan and David Duchovny play Willa and Bill, former lovers who broke up a quarter-century ago only to find themselves snow-stranded in the same airport. Bill spots Willa first—she’s trying to plug her cell-phone charger into an outlet he already knows is dead, having just tried it himself. (Might this be a metaphor for the eternal search for whatever-it-is that keeps us going?) We can see the gears working in Bill’s head: should he approach her, say hello? A few minutes later, she spots him from afar. She tries, frantically but fruitlessly, to hide in the airport’s sparse crowd. But he catches her gaze, and there’s no avoiding an encounter. They’re cautiously happy to see one another, but their initial attempts at conversation have a brittle awkwardness. These are people with a history, and with some living under their belts. Whatever’s going to happen next might be interesting; it may not be pretty.
Willa and Bill were lovers in college, until a confluence of painful events tore them asunder. Willa is a somewhat flaky massage therapist who hasn’t let go of her ’90s-era New Agey values. She lives in Austin but is headed to Boston, traveling with little luggage beyond a rainstick, an important accouterment for the cleansing ritual she’s going to perform for a newly divorced friend. Bill, some sort of businessguy—he wears a suit and carries a briefcase, which tells us pretty much all we need to know—lives in a woodsy house outside of Boston and is headed to Austin for a business meeting. He’s married, perhaps unhappily; he hints that he’s worried about his relationship with his daughter, who longs to be a professional dancer but who isn’t, he feels, very good. At first, after moving on from small talk, Willa and Bill bicker and spar. Re-entering the same space has reopened some old wounds. But eventually, we find out about the things that drove them apart, and the further disappointments they experienced after that. This isn’t just a story about lingering regrets, about roads not taken. It’s a story of people who broke up and continued to fill their lives with living. Their breakup may have been painful, but it wasn’t the end of feeling pain—because no breakup ever is.
That’s what’s good about What Happens Later: its willingness to try to see two people in all their thorny complexity, scarred not just by their history together but by all the great, dumb and awful things that happened in its aftermath. (The script is by Steven Dietz, Kirk Lynn and Ryan, adapted from Dietz’s play Shooting Star.) What Happens Later is a two-person affair set in a surreal air terminal, a kind of existential nowheresville with few fellow travelers and even fewer amenities; the airport itself is a third character, an almost-sentient being who pops in now and then to make a not-very-helpful announcement, or to barge in on its characters’ thoughts. (Its voice is provided by a mystery actor credited as Hal Liggett. Ryan has not yet revealed this performer’s identity, and not even Duchovny knows who it is—the voice was added in postproduction.) The movie is at its best not necessarily when Bill and Willa are detailing their respective disappointments and frustrations, but as their conversation wanders toward the mundane: When did cats become so popular? How did everyone’s bosses become so young? (Bill refers to his, derisively, as Baby Kevin.) Who thinks up all these names—bomb cyclones, thundersnow—for disastrous weather patterns? In the spaces between these questions, two grownups who still share a kind of cosmic closeness get a chance to compare notes on life.
But What Happens Later falters when it tries to get too cute—which is a little too often. Bill pushes Willa, fast, through the deserted airport in a luggage cart—wheee! Don't ever lose your zest for life, kids! And Bill spends a bit too much time complaining about the airport’s canned cover versions of his beloved ’90s alterna-hits. Still, Duchovny, the brainy heartthrob of many X-Files addicts who are now themselves in their fifties and sixties, is suitably and appealingly deadpan as Bill. But Ryan, who built a career off being a cutie-pie in the Nora Ephron-written comedies When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, seems reluctant to let go of the aggressive adorableness that made her famous. (Her movie is dedicated to Ephron.) She puts a great deal of effort into underlining Willa’s ditzy kookiness, but she’s best in her gravest moments, those times where her character is forced to come clean about the things she’d rather not talk about.
Ryan was always charming enough in the Ephron comedies, but she became a much more interesting actor a little later, in the early 2000s: she was a deeply touching presence in Jane Campion’s otherwise dour crime drama In the Cut, and she was even better in a movie almost no one seems to remember, the 2004 Against the Ropes, about pioneering boxing manager Jackie Kallen. This is the second movie Ryan has directed—the first was the 2015 World War II-era drama Ithaca—and it seems that she’s stretching toward something new, even as, maybe, she’s a little afraid to leave the past completely behind. What Happens Later is, at least, striving for something just beyond reach, for the things we don’t even know how to ask for. And that stretch is one way we know we’re alive.
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