Director: Michael Dowse
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan
3 (out of 5) Globes
Can a rom-com even exist these days without irony? “What If” emerges into a culture that’s ghettoized the genre, leaving it to only be loved by those who gorge on its wares like comfort food. Not enough people saw “They Came Together,” but that film — an outright lampoon, and a hilarious one — took the temperature of a culture that today sees them as cheesy trinkets. “What If” doesn’t want to be loved only by the earnest; it wants everyone. It’s funny, sharp-tongued and features a revelatory, quick-witted turn from Daniel Radcliffe, who dismantles any possibility he’ll be confined by the film series that must not be named.
But is that enough? Granted, it has more still going for it. It has Zoe Kazan, who has never been more loose and comfortable. And it has a unique premise. Radcliffe’s Wallace and Kazan’s Chantry meet-cute at a party. They hit it off, talk all night, and then she casually blurts out that she lives with her longtime boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall). The two become friends anyway, but it’s only so long before the time they spend together proves frustrating, maybe for both of them.
This isn’t “When Harry Met Sally…” which asserts that (straight) men and women simply can’t be friends. “What If” takes its situation with enough seriousness to not torpedo the jokes. At heart it asks, as the old club songs goes, what is love? At what point does chemistry go from mere comradery into romance? What necessitates that Chantry and Wallace need be together as partners? There’s a tension in the film that lasts longer than it should, and it even seems for a good stretch that the film may end with them not together.
Yet the more it tries to be smart, the more disappointing it is whenever it scampers back to rom-com convention. To its credit, “What If” doesn’t pretend to be a dissection of the genre. It takes awhile to realize that it’s simply a slightly self-aware title that knows that we know it knows that the traditional rom-com is silly, yet still gives us the goods anyway. It’s uses most of the tropes but covers them in actual good jokes, more alert-than-usual performances and nuttier-than-usual token friends (chiefly Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, who spend most of their screen time aggressively making out). But it’s still a rom-com, and that, theoretically, is fine.
That doesn’t make it any less disappointing when it succumbs to some of the genre’s more annoying traits. It’s hard to know what to make of Chantry’s live-in partner Ben, who quietly taunts Wallace about not stealing his girl but in a creepy-jerkish way. He mostly disappears from the picture after entering it, and it’s not clear what Chantry sees in him or why he can’t just be handily dispatched. Like its central romance, “What If” is naggingly ambiguous, caught in a wishy-washy space between rom-com retread and something smarter. And amusing as it often is, its milking of a gag about “Fool’s Gold,” the calorie-bursting sandwich that helped kill Elvis, is downright glutinous.
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