August 08, 2014

What If

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



What If

ROMANCE/COMEDY:

Ireland/Canada, 2013

U.S. Release Date:

2014-08-08

Running Length:

1:35

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Sexual Content, Profanity, Partial Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall

Director:

Michael Dowse

Screenplay:

Elan Mastai, based on the play by T.J. Dawe & Michael Rinaldi

Cinematography:

Rogier Stoffers

Music:

A.C. Newman

U.S. Distributor:

CBS Films

Subtitles:

none


"Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way." - Harry Burns (Billy Crystal), When Harry Met Sally

That memorable line, penned by Nora Ephron and spoken by Billy Crystal, has become the template for more than one picture to emerge since 1989's When Harry Met Sally re-ignited America's waning interest in the romantic comedy. What If, a Toronto-based indie from director Michael Dowse is the latest and, unfortunately, not the best in this long line of derivative efforts. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the movie - it does what one expects it to do and gets the two opposite sex pals to cross the line between friendship and romance - but its approach is perfunctory. There's nothing special about this love story. It feels familiar and the appeal of the leads can't fully compensate for unremarkable dialogue and the obligatory (but nevertheless irritating) "romantic complications" subplot.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Wallace, a twentysomething med school dropout who has become a hermit after a former girlfriend cheated on him. He meets graphic designer Chantry (Zoe Kazan) by chance and the two hit it off immediately. Because she has a live-in boyfriend (Rafe Spall) at home, she wants to be friends. He wants more but agrees to the "friends" relationship because it allows him to spend time with her. The situation gradually becomes difficult for Wallace - something recognized by his best friend, Allan (Adam Driver). Meanwhile, Chantry does her best to strangle any non-platonic feelings she may have for Wallace, although it's lonely in Toronto after her boyfriend moves to Ireland for six months.

At least this isn't one of those movies that spends more time keeping the would-be lovers apart than allowing them to share scenes together. It's debatable, however, how high the quality of some of that time is. Instead of having the characters engage in meaningful dialogue that provides us with insight into them, we're often forced to sit through passages that are either rom-com generic or self-consciously hip. There are a few animated sequences that add a little whimsy the proceedings but little else. For anyone on the lookout, good scenes can be found - the one on the beach at night is an example - but too many promising moments are hurt by failed attempts at humor (like when Wallace accidentally knocks Chanty's beau out a window) or repartee that's considerably less witty than the filmmakers believe it to be.

The lead actors almost save the production through charm and chemistry. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan make a cute couple - the kind whose inevitable pairing is the outcome we're rooting for. For his part, Radcliffe shows that he's firmly put Harry Potter behind him. I never once thought of the boy wizard while watching Wallace. The elfin Kazan is delightful as always, although her best role remains that of the title character in the under-recognized Ruby Sparks. She's believable and endearing in this part and her acting alone covers up how thinly written the role is. "Best Friend" support is provided by Adam Driver, who is soon to become a big name due to his prominence in the third Star Wars trilogy.

What If is adequate cinematic junk food for romantic comedy lovers. It's not smart enough or funny enough to attract a wider audience. It feels very much like a film festival movie that doesn't play nearly as well in a local multiplex as it does within the isolated bubble populated by adoring die-hards. Since the big Hollywood studios don't bring us many traditional light-hearted love stories anymore, it has been left up to the indies to fill the breach. The result, while capable of painlessly occupying 90 minutes, isn't remarkable enough to recommend as more than a home video rental.

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