What If (2013) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, including references throughout, partial nudity and language
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Rafe Spall, Adam Driver, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenplay: Elan Mastai (based on the play, "Toothpaste and Cigars", by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi)
Review published August 17, 2014
A sort of When Harry Met Sally for today's hipster set, What If explores the difficulties that can emerge when two attractive people of the opposite sex decide to be best friends with one another when one is involved in a long-term relationship.
Set in Toronto, Daniel Radcliffe (Kill Your Darlings, The Woman in Black) plays Wallace, a med-school dropout in his 20s and struggling to get back to a social life after nearly a year of moping around due to a messy break-up with the ex who broke his heart. He finally meets a gal that can take him out of his doldrums, a young would-be animator named Chantry (Kazan, In Your Eyes), who is pretty much everything he could be looking for -- pretty, smart, interesting, and fun. But she has a successful and charming boyfriend of five years (Spall, I Give It a Year) that she lives with that keeps any romantic aspirations largely in check. The two have a connection as friends that can't be beat, but Wallace wants squeeze more out of their platonic relationship without pushing Chantry away.
Michael Dowse (Goon, Take Me Home Tonight) does a nice job delivering effective visuals and tight edits, with bits of animation and solid use of music to effect a sense of romance underneath the surface pleasures of a mostly sitcom set of situations. Elan Mastai (Alone in the Dark) breaks open the scope of the stage play, "Toothpaste and Cigars", by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, into a smart and sophisticated modern comedy in everything but its forgettable title (it was originally titled, "The F Word", with the F standing for 'Friend', but that rankled the MPAA), at least in terms of dialogue, though the contrivances in the overall plot do strain the believability factor. Despite starring a bunch of sophisticated twenty-somethings, about half of the film's conflicts could easily be resolved with modern technology, but this is too precious in romanticism for something as gauche as a text message.
Other than the moments when the movie goes too far or gets too cute for its own good (falls out of windows and flights to far-off locales on a whim are only but two of about 20 narrative overreaches), my biggest issue with the otherwise witty What If comes through the semi-obnoxious characters, who are all quirky, quick-witted, uber-creative, with retro-chic garb and furnishings, and speak mostly with the same hip sensibility in regard to anything and everything. It's the kind of movie where the best friends are comedians, the two leads are kindred dreamers, while the boyfriend is just too much a part of the "normal, practical world" (he's a lawyer, not a struggling artist) to really understand his girlfriend's idealistic aspirations, as Wallace is the only one that makes her feel less spiritually lonely.
Radcliffe and Kazan definitely have the kind of chemistry that might suggest they'd be good friends in real life, but one just doesn't sense that they might be smoldering for one another underneath their facade of friendship, which also erodes any sense of rooting interest in seeing if they might ultimately consummate their understated flirtations. The "friend zone" is like a mine field, but when you're rooting against a breakthrough, it's probably a sure sign that we really don't think these two are meant for one another.
On the plus side, the dialogue is often quite funny (even if too reliant on scatological references), and it's refreshing that the boyfriend that's keeping true love from bursting between the two leads is not depicted as a world-class jerk most of the time, even if the couple doesn't exactly behave like two people who've been together for five entire years of solid relationship. Meanwhile, those five years seem to stack up just about evenly with the two friends incessant bantering one-upmanship of wit, The ability to continue a clever riff on alternate names for Cool Whip is akin to foreplay for these artsy-smartsy types.
What If is a bit of a mixed bag, appropriately whimsical and romantic, but gets caught trying to be funny all too often. The story surprises in some scenes with incisive dialogue about feelings and relationships, enough to recommend, but also enough to wish it would stay in that mode for the duration without snapping back to formula. It's cute and clever, sometimes too much so in both, but it contains enough smaller, more perspicacious moments to cherish, ultimately coming out on top as a mostly winning rom-com for those who prefer their lovers to woo each other with playfully quirky witticisms over gushingly overstated demonstrations of love.
©2014 Vince Leo