Monday, August 25, 2014

What If

Can you handle seeing Daniel Radcliffe play a romantic lead without thinking of Harry Potter?  Did you feel like (500) Days of Summer was lacking in real connection?  Are you intimately familiar with the "friend-zone"?  Do you have a grasp on what it feels like when you have an unreciprocated 'crush'? If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then there's a solid chance that What If will work a sly bit of magic on you.  The film is essentially a rehashing of territory made familiar by When Harry Met Sally, exploring the question so many romantic comedies rely on: can men and women really be just friends?  Whatever your actual opinion on this may be (I vote yes), in the world of the Hollywood ending the answer is almost always no. It's a convention of the genre, and the success of the film stems from its ability to play with our expectations, make us question what it is we're asking for, and to make us love (and perhaps, see ourselves in) the characters.  In that, What If succeeds where so many have failed.  Though flawed, it's smarter than the average, willing to explore uncomfortable complications, and aware of the damage the viewer's wish-fulfillment brings.

When I put it like that, I'm being a bit deceptive.  It's not that What If revels in any kind of darkness, and it's not like you'll be plagued (at all) by the sense that someone has been wronged.  In fact, the film is consistently rather delightful; loaded with scenes that test out different types of humor and situations as the characters crawl towards the inevitable.  Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a med school dropout who hasn't been in a relationship since he dumped his cheating ex-girlfriend.  At a party, he meets his eccentric friend Allan's (Adam Driver) cousin Chantry (Zoe Kazan).  They bond over their inability to function properly at parties, instantly connect, and Chantry drops the bombshell that she lives with her boyfriend (Rafe Spall).  She proposes that they become friends, and though Wallace is already falling for her, he agrees to keep things platonic just to stay around her.

Naturally, this is asking the impossible.  Wallace is clearly in love with Chantry, and this is a fact that drives Allan and their mutual friends to constantly hound him with options: he has to tell her or he has to get out.  Chantry, too, is more subtly torn.  She's aware that she loves Wallace as a friend and that he's a driving influence in keeping her from new job.  She's aware, too, that Wallace is more present than her boyfriend, who departs for months at a time in his role with the United Nations.  The two of them are a bit moody, guilty, and dependent on one another even when they're uncomfortable accepting what that dependence signifies.  That the situation is so complicated makes What If weirdly effective.  Though the film frequently fights against ideas of realism via the addition of heavily slapstick injuries or little animated bits featuring Chantry's illustrations, it also nails the nuances of this variety of relationship without resorting to villainizing the characters at the fringe.
In the name of keeping things comedic, What If's interest in some of these avenues is relatively shallow.  The film knows when to step back from some of the complications, which breaks in the sexual tension the characters are allowed to commit without judgment, and how to manipulate the supporting cast to bring about some of the more natural genre moves.  Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe have a surprisingly believable sort of chemistry, and look the part of actual human beings. Though their quirks are accentuated a bit here, each belongs to the space they're inhabiting without triggering too many eye rolls. They work as romantic leads.  They work as complicated characters. They work as people you're supposed to root for, even when they're being stupid, difficult, or obtuse.  Together, they have a sweetness, and the friendship Chantry initially hoped for is just as visible as Wallace's quiet hopes for their future.  All of this is enough of a corrective to make What If a solid entry into the rom com canon.  While it's not about to fully reinvigorate an already struggling genre, this is a film that's easy to love without guilt and that's smart enough to begin rethinking some of the story elements we take for granted.      


  1. This spiked my interest the first moment I saw the trailer so I'm thrilled to see this soon enough. Good review!

  2. oh this sounds sweet, I'm curious to see Radcliffe as a romantic lead! It premieres around here in about two weeks, I'll definitely watch it.


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