And the hits just keep on coming. Things are so bad right now that Guardians of the Galaxy could potentially reclaim the number one spot this weekend because nothing worthwhile has come out since that film’s release. I had some measure of hope that If I Stay or When the Game Stands Tall might have turned out to be pleasant surprises, but the reviews are in and they’re crap.
Lucky I’ve been keeping something in reserve for such an occasion.
What If tells the story of two star-crossed lovers in Toronto, Canada. We first meet Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) a year after his girlfriend cheated on him and he’s only just now getting over the heartbreak. He goes to a party being held by his old college roommate (Allan, played by Adam Driver), who introduces Wallace to his cousin. Chantry (Zoe Kazan) strikes up a conversation with Wallace and they get along famously… right up until Chantry mentions her boyfriend. In this case, she’s been going out with Ben (Rafe Spall) for the past five years, and he seems like a perfectly nice guy with a fantastic future to share with his beloved Chantry.
Every guy has been there. In fact, it’s pretty much the story of my whole love life. But I digress.
On one level, the movie is about that timeless question of whether or not two people of opposite genders can just be friends. And yes, this movie does tread a lot of ground that will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen When Harry Met Sally. Then again, this film will be compared to When Harry Met Sally anyway, because it’s a romantic comedy and When Harry Met Sally is pretty much the modern romcom by which all others are measured. And anyway, Harry and Sally were both single through the bulk of their movie’s runtime. This one features a steady relationship to complicate things. Which brings me to another of this film’s layers.
Perhaps more than anything else, the movie is about choice. All throughout the running time, the characters have to choose between what they have now and something else that might potentially be better. They have to choose between having a relationship and having a career. Between staying home or starting fresh somewhere else. The characters have to sort through a wide variety of possible routes and plot curveballs, which keeps the tension going and saves the plot from that common romcom trap of being predictable.
The characters and their development arcs are a huge part of what makes this movie work so well. The foremost examples are of course Wallace and Chantry, both of whom have scorching chemistry from start to finish. Between their delightful banter and the soulful performances of Radcliffe and Kazan, these characters do a fantastic job powering the film. Of course, it also helps that Wallace and Chantry both feel like fleshed-out characters with their own backstories and dreams. And the occasional sweetly awkward moment does wonders as well.
Then we have Allan and Nicole (Mackenzie Davis). These two drunkenly meet each other at the start of the film, and we get to watch every step of their crazy whirlwind romance. On paper, it seems like Allan and Nicole have the kind of horny ill-planned relationship that can only end in disaster. Quickly. Yet as time goes on, the film questions whether they know something that nobody else does. If nothing else, their relationship is actually going someplace, as opposed to the Wallace/Chantry romance that’s stuck in a very awkward neutral gear. It becomes an intriguing question regarding what these two characters have and whether they can make it last.
Of course, not all the characters work. Funny enough, the two most prominent cases in point are the sisters of the two main leads. Wallace’s sister (Ellie, played by Jemima Rooper) is only around for a couple of comic relief scenes and otherwise serves no purpose. As for Chantry’s sister… whoo boy. I get what the filmmakers were going for with Dalia (Megan Park), but the character ends up being even more loose and capricious than Nicole. She’s so far over the place that I couldn’t get an adequate hold on her, so she ends up looking like more of a device to do whatever the plot needs at any given time.
Pretty much all of the other secondary characters are basically red herrings. Yet that actually works in this case, because every one of them represents another path for the plot to potentially go down, and watching the characters struggle with their options is the whole point of the story.
But then we also have Ben. Kudos to Rafe Spall for making a solid impression with so little screen time. Of course, when a character’s introduction involves getting pushed out of a window, that’s going to make a very strong impression no matter who’s playing him.
This brings me to the film’s tone. The movie includes several whimsical touches that land with mixed results. Between the animated vignettes, the random cutaways, the pop culture references, and other pop-up sight gags, it seems like the filmmakers were trying to make a movie just this side of quirky. Sometimes it works, other times it feels like they were trying way too hard.
But by far my biggest problem is the ending. Specifically, the film should have ended five minutes sooner. Here’s the thing: This is a movie about the complexities of love. It’s about all the various conflicts between competing emotions, multiplied by modern customs of courtship and standards of success. Hell, the title of the film is “What if?” and every single part of the narrative revolves around that question. This is a story that needed to end on an ambiguous note, and there’s one point when the film is primed to do just that. Instead, we get an epilogue that neatly resolves everything. Bad move, in my opinion.
(Side note: This movie was originally titled The “F” Word, but the title was changed after censors were afraid that not enough people would realize the double entendre. I frankly prefer the revised title.)
Yet even with my misgivings about the ending, What If was a delight. The film is a romcom that succeeds at being romantic and comical, in large part due to the strength of the dialogue and the cast. Hell, the interplay between Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan is easily worth the ticket price.
Though the movie can get a little too saccharine on occasion and not every character is a winner, I have absolutely no problem recommending it. And anyway, it’s not like there’s anything else in the multiplexes right now.