What is it that makes a great romantic comedy? Certainly chemistry between the two leads is a must, coupled with a contemporary outlook on relationships and a certain amount of freshness. And naturally it would help if the "com" part of rom-com is present and accounted for like in many of the greats, such as When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail. What If, which formerly had the provocative (and far superior) title The F Word, couldn't have a more watchable romantic pair than Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, and they go a long way in elevating what is a very familiar premise. But while the film has many of the right elements working in its favor, finding humor in romantic foibles isn’t really one of them.
You know Radcliffe has truly moved on from Harry Potter when he's placed in the position of romantic lead, but he makes a convincing lovelorn hopeful as Wallace, who is still anguishing over a two-year-old break up from his cheating girlfriend. A med school dropout living in Toronto, he isn't exactly in a positive state-of-mind when he meets Chantry (Kazan) at a party thrown by his best friend Allan (Adam Driver) who couldn't be more different from him. Wallace and Chantry on the other hand hit if off immediately, finishing one another's sentences and having the same weird sense of humor. It's obvious right away these two are meant to be together. We know it, Wallace knows it, but Chantry reveals she has a boyfriend at the end of a near-perfect walk home.
So that puts poor Wallace in the "friend zone" where he doesn't want to be, so he does the rational thing and rips up her phone number. He doesn't want to be a friend; nor does he want to be the guy lurking in the background trying to break-up her relationship with nice-guy Ben (Rafe Spall). But when the two meet, ironically at a screening of The Princess Bride (nod to Rob Reiner, one of many), they just can't help themselves and decide to be best buds even though we know Wallace wants more.
Where the film gets interesting and reaches beyond formula, just a little, is in the small details of Wallace and Chantry's predicament. He believes any relationship that begins in a less than honorable fashion is doomed for failure. But as Allan's trouble-making girlfriend Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) says, "Love is dirty. Sometimes it's downright filthy". Chantry and Ben have a home together; they've been a couple for five years. Can Wallace really keep his feelings in check? Should he? And what about her? How long can she bury what is an obvious connection to Wallace? As they grow closer and time passes, it only becomes harder to be completely honest when honesty is what is called for.
Penned by Elan Mastai and directed by Michael Dowse, What If always feels genuine, like you are dealing with real people in a very complicated life situation. While big laughs are few it's made up for in authenticity and the sense that Wallace and Chantry are truly friends with common traits, not just presumptive soul mates. But it's in the treatment of Ben that the film takes a big gamble. Usually in this case the current beau is a jerk that makes us wonder how he's dating anybody, but Ben is actually a pretty sweet guy. Even when things seem to be turning for the worse he wants to fight to make things work. Easily this could have made Wallace look like a prick, but what it really does is make his quest to win Chantry's heart all the more believable. Ultimately, things start falling into place exactly as we expect them to. There's a "last-second race" to say something profound, tears are shed, hearts broken and mended. You get the drift; however it's always a pleasure to watch. While the film is definitely smart and insightful in looking at male/female friendships, it's in desperate need of some bigger, edgier laughs.
Radcliffe has made some interesting career turns but starring in a film such as this is more challenging than one might think, especially for an actor many have lofty expectations in. The same kind of applies to Kazan, an indie darling comfortable in higher concept genre films like The Pretty One and Ruby Sparks. Chemistry is a tough thing to quantify but Kazan and Radcliffe definitely have it. The whole supporting cast turns in strong efforts with Driver and Davis (who broke out in Drake Doremus' Breathe In) especially good as misguided but well-meaning matchmakers.
What If has modest ambitions and stars you will never get tired of watching, but you'll leave thinking it could have been a more lasting relationship rather than just a fling.