Engaging actors, wry script distinguish lightweight rom-com ‘What If’
In romantic comedy, only one thing matters: the romantic couple. It doesn’t matter how lame the plot is (and lameness is practically a staple of the genre). Conversely, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the writing is (less common in your typical rom-com these days). An audience will forgive just about anything as long as the would-be couple attempting to hook up is engaging enough, and if it becomes a matter of some urgency to us that they get together.
Fortunately, the entertaining What If has a pair of very attractive leads in Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. And, indeed, there’s less to forgive than usual in the film as a whole, mostly thanks to a sprightly script by Elan Mastai, adapted from the stage play, Toothpaste and Cigars, by T. J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. It’s a two-character play where dialogue counts for a lot, and conversation in the film is laced with postmodern irony, and often very funny self-deprecating humor. The premise may be tissue-thin, some of the narrative mood swings feel a bit forced, and even the dialogue occasionally fails big time, but the easy charm of the leads keeps us involved.
Directed by Michael Dowse, the story begins with Wallace (Radcliffe) and Chantry (Kazan) meeting cutely at a party. He’s recently dropped out of med school after getting burned by his ex-girlfriend, another student doctor; Chantry finds him arranging the poetry magnets on the fridge door to read “love is stupid.” They banter and seem to spark a little. Wallace contrives to leave the party at the same time as Chantry, and walk her home, which is when she lets it drop in an offhand manner that she lives with her boyfriend.
That’s about it for premise. The smitten Wallace has to decide if he can agree to just be friends. (The original title of the screenplay was The F Word.) Chantry, an animator, has lived with Ben (Rafe Spall), some sort of diplomatic translator, for five years. As she and Wallace become BFFs, texting each other daily, she starts to wonder if their friendship could blossom into something more—and if she even wants it to.
So, not all that much of a hook to hang a movie on. Happily, diversion is provided by Adam Driver as Allan (he’s Chantry’s cousin and Wallace’s bud), whose intense and sudden blitzkrieg romance with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) offers comic contrast to their friends’ decorous sublimation. Driver and Radcliffe are also funny together in their guy-talk scenes, especially their well-timed give-and-take when Allan lays out Wallace’s options as to be either “sleazy, conniving or pathetic.”
Radcliffe has worked hard in the last few years to distance himself from the boy wizard who saved the world from Voldemort. Audiences have seen him naked onstage as the disturbed teen obsessed with horses in Equus, and onscreen as a young Victorian widower beset by ghosts in The Woman In Black, and as a collegiate Allen Ginsberg crushed on another man in Kill Your Darlings. We rarely see him play a regular bloke with romantic problems as we do here, and he proves to be a refreshingly light and capable comic actor.
Kazan is another likeable personality, as she demonstrated in Ruby Sparks (which she also wrote), with her big, waifish eyes, and adroit delivery of droll lines. And most of the story takes place in Toronto, which is photographed to look clean, sparkling, modern and romantic. But the film loses its footing in a couple of manufactured confrontations where the characters fight for no reason, not because it’s organic to the situation, but because the script requires a change of direction. Also, there’s one too many discussions of fecal matter. Once, even twice, the friends are humorously testing their gross-out boundaries, but three times? Seriously?
Still, director Dowse scores points for factoring in some charming bits of animated fancy (drawings that come to life and fly around the city), in keeping with Chantry’s vocation. Which lead to a delightful animated closing credits sequence—part Fractured Fairy Tale, part Monty Python—that leaves viewers feeling more pleased than otherwise at this good-natured comic confection.
WHAT IF *** (out of four)Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis. Written by Elan Mastai. Directed by Michael Dowse. A CBS Films release. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.