By Will Ashton
Contrary to my fairly cynical nature, I am actually quite a big fan of the romantic comedy genre. That said, however, I don’t just love whatever movie features two attractive people falling for each other. What makes a romantic comedy work—besides, you know, being funny—is making the relationship on screen feel genuine, likable and well earned.
Of course, anyone walking into these movies knows that so-and-so and so-and-so are going to get together. That’s what people buy the ticket for in the first place. But, if the relationship sizzles and the chemistry is strong, it doesn’t matter how formulaic a movie is or how cheesy it all is. It clicks. That’s what makes the new romantic comedy What If work.
Med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is at a stalling point in his life. It’s been exactly one year since he broke off a significant relationship with his girlfriend, left school and starting living with his sister in Toronto. Not feeling any bit better than he did one year ago, he attempts to cheer himself up by going to a party with his friend Allan (Adam Driver). Only to find a strong, somewhat quirky spark with a young girl at the party named Chantry (Zoe Kazan).
After hitting it off quite well, Wallace is hit by a roadblock when he walks with her home: she has a boyfriend. In fact, she’s had a boyfriend, for five years. Despite having feelings for her—and her seeming to have some feelings for him as well—he remains numb on his true thoughts on her. But, as their relationship grows, so too does Wallace’s insecurities and his bubbling emotions for his newfound best friend.
While What If (originally titled The F Word, which is by and far a better title than the horribly generic and forgettable new one it was given) is—much like its characters—not quite as quick, witty or clever as it thinks itself to be, there is still a loose, free-fitting breeziness that comes from its writing. Penned by Elan Mastai, based on the play Toothpaste and Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, the film knows how to keep itself light without ever getting too lighthearted, while also expressing its fair share of laughs and dramatic pathos in equal measures.
While Radcliffe has been starring in a couple movies of late without the Harry Potter banner, this is the first time he feels fully comfortable and removed from his younger screen legacy. His Wallace is enjoyably sweet and likable, and Radcliffe is able to make him believably grounded and quick on his feet. Same can be said for his female co-lead Kazan, who’s continued sweet and bubbly persona keeps the movie emotionally driven and realistically heartfelt.
But what truly sells the movie is when these two are together. Their chemistry is not just enchanting and good-natured, but casual and snappy in the best ways possible. What If seems to be sitting on the fence as far as whether or not it’s meant to be simply a romantic comedy or a hipster one. But, if it truly is the later, it’s definitely one of the better ones to come around of late, as it never gets too uppity or caught up in its own BS. It keeps everything to its bases, and—while oddly obsessed with jokes on feces—knows what makes a romantic comedy work and sells it.
As suggested, however, there is nothing about What If that reinvents the wheels, especially as it comes to its final moments. This may be refreshing for some, but will probably be annoying for most. Its earnestness and carefree nuance from director Michael Dowse makes its move well, but its this deciding factor that keeps the movie at just being pretty good when it could very well have been a good or even very good modern romantic comedy.
Also, while Driver continues to be a likable on-screen presence, this movie suggests that he may be best in small turns. Not that he is bad, but it’s hard to imagine that he could very truly carry his own comedy. His own drama maybe, but not a romp.
Its message on disregarding the whole “I have a boyfriend” thing is a bit murky, to say the least. But much like Dowse last film, Goon, there is nothing here that hasn’t been done or done better. But it’s all about the execution, not just the story.
In that regard, What If is a lovely little romantic comedy that is funny without being outrageous, and airy without being stupid. It may not stick in the brain by the time the year—or maybe even the summer—comes to pass, but it’s hard to imagine even rom-com haters getting up on What If’s good vibes.