‘What If’ an inherently flawed, but pleasant romantic comedy

By Ian Flanagan / Staff Writer

“What If”

Directed by: Michael Dowse

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver

Grade: B-

For all the romantic comedies that claim that love is messy, far fewer actually believe it. “What If” seems to think it’s a cut above the rest, but for all of its undeserving self-satisfaction, the film is so agreeable and keen to please that it’s hard not to enjoy.

What If” wastes no time in reaching its obligatory boy-meets-girl scenario. In its first scene, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a med school dropout stuck in a dead-end job, strikes up a comfortable, crackling conversation at a party with Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator. Wallace has been numbed by heartache for a year after a sour breakup, while Chantry is in the midst of a committed five-year relationship. Only in movies can true romantic chemistry be based solely on how effortlessly a couple can conjure up amusing banter — and these two pass the litmus test for having something special. 

But it seems all is for naught when, as Chantry writes down her number, she offhandedly mentions her boyfriend, leaving Wallace in subdued disappointment as he throws her number away soon afterwards. The two meet by chance again and decide they should continue their friendship. 

To discuss the plot further would be explaining everything so obvious and predictable about where this premise can go. Wallace eventually encounters Chantry’s territorial boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), and rebound-ready sister (Megan Park) and he continually seeks advice from his unpredictable roommate and best friend Allan (Adam Driver) as his feelings for Chantry become more unshakable.

“What If” could have examined the fragility and discomfort of these on-the-fence friendships but it ultimately fails to pick apart their tricky delicacy. It’s less about accepting friendship from the opposite sex, even if romance was your first intention, and more about the uncertainty of waiting for someone who presently can’t be with you. It is all too safe and simplified — a thorny subject boiled down to rounded edges. But even with the thematic depth of a sitcom subplot, “What If” is elevated by its sharp, fast-paced dialogue and a likable cast. 

Radcliffe is the biggest reason why the film glides when it should be stumbling. His committed performance and everyman charm makes him the strongest player in the cast. Radcliffe, with Pottermania now three years behind him, is still in the middle of ditching the glasses and expanding his repertoire. Films like “The Woman in Black” and “Kill Your Darlings” are more thrilling just for Radcliffe’s dedication to shrugging off his childhood fame and becoming an actor to reckon with. Driver also never fails as the hilariously wacky best friend. Kazan’s performance is good enough, but her quirkiness and unthreatening cuteness — nearly identical to her appeal in the similarly styled “Ruby Sparks” — feels like just another cliché, much like the film’s pointless animation sequences and generically pleasant soundtrack.

Speaking of clichés, perhaps the film’s greatest offense is its painful final minutes. Not because the sickening fairy tale epilogue wraps everything up in a bow so tight that the film almost chokes itself, but because the film could have ended with the raw sweetness and light catharsis of its penultimate scene. It would have made for a substantially better film.

Regardless of its many slips, it’s hard to dismiss “What If” entirely — it’s far too inoffensive and well-written to be considered distasteful. The dialogue, while at times almost too eager to please for its own good, still presented its share of unexpected laughs. Sometimes that’s enough. “What If” seems harmlessly unaware of its own flaws, and somehow that makes them much easier to forgive.

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