Film Review: What If

Daniel Radcliffe engages in an otherwise groan-inducing affair.

The only feature Zoe Kazan has written to date, Ruby Sparks, regrettably lacks the courage of its convictions, ending on a note of narrative and visual sunniness that disserves its dark themes concerning male fantasy and female conformity. And yet, until Sparks opts for genre safety in its final moments, the film is an entertaining, effective satire of the manic-pixie-dream-girl variety of romantic comedy. Kazan, who also stars, was seemingly onto something with her story about a self-involved author who writes his dream girl into being, and if one wishes she had sharpened her teeth before biting the tip of her pen to a finer point, her Ruby Sparks is still very interesting. All of which makes Kazan’s decision to co-star in Michael Dowse’s What If bewildering: The actress plays the very manic pixie dream girl she skewered in her screenwriting debut. What If may be bumptiously leavened, but this fact is depressing.

For What If is the type of romantic comedy that features lovelorn protagonists with names like Wallace and Chantry. Some readers will be able to paint for themselves an accurate rendering of plot, character and tone proceeding from this information alone, but for the summarily inclined, What If depicts what happens when the newly single Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets the very much coupled Chantry (Kazan) and the two become fast emotionally and sexually repressed friends. With his endearing Neanderthal of a best friend Allan (“Girls’” endearing Neanderthal Adam Driver) at the ready to provide inane or profound advice as the narrative beats demand, and with her promiscuous younger sister Dalia (Megan Park) likewise on hand to infuse a measure of witless or winsome comic relief into circumstances as the script allows, Wallace and Chantry dance around each other until–spoiler alert–the inevitable.

Radcliffe, in one of his first major-release roles post-Harry Potter, makes for an appealing romantic lead, intelligent, charming, and in confident possession of comedic timing. And female second-stringers Dalia and especially the appreciably nutty but thankfully not quirky girlfriend of Allan, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), elicit some genuine laughs. But working as they are from Elan Mastai’s script adaptation (which inexplicably won Best Adapted Screenplay at the second-annual Canadian Screen Awards) of the play Toothpaste and Cigars, the actors have thin material with which to dress their characters. Awkward bantering is drawn out in a manner reminiscent of Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy,” in which jokes run long and until they exhaust themselves, although in What If fatigue does not appear an intentional part of the comedy. Kazan and Radcliffe deliver their lines with the rat-tat-tat speed suggestive of quick minds, but rapid-fire delivery does not a bon mot make, and the film’s witticisms and many poop cracks are of the sort in which the word “crack” provides the giggle-inducing high, or otherwise, point.

In all fairness, Kazan is no better nor worse than her co-stars doing their game best, but the film’s cloying sensibility clings to those elements that define her character in particular: kewpie-eyed cuteness, Peter Pan collars and knitting groups, and a vaguely defined career as an animator that informs those moments of fancy that see both her and Wallace imagining her drawings, which look more than a little like the doodle animation in Disney’s tween TV show “Lizzie McGuire,” taking flight before their starry eyes. In greater fairness, this will likely appeal to what was once “McGuire”’s demographic, 12-year-old girls.

Given the knowing debt What If owes to When Harry Met Sally..., notably in its conceit that begs the time-weathered question, “Can men and women ever actually just be friends?” one might be tempted to fashion a query out of the film’s title and ask, What If Nora Ephron were still alive? Because it is films like What If that give the misguided impression the best the genre has to offer has already come and gone. That is, of course, never the case, so let’s instead express hope for the future, and eagerly anticipate those witty romantic comedies something like What If must even now be inspiring in backlash. Something not so unbearably precious.

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