Okay, this is getting scary. I’m starting to enjoy romantic comedies again, and that’s not like me. This year has given us a few that were actually worth watching like “Obvious Child,” a movie that went far beyond my expectations, and this is all happening as the genre has found itself suffering from burnout thanks to a lot of banal movies that have made us collectively roll our eyes on a regular basis. Now we have “What If” which is by no means an original romantic comedy; it owes quite a bit to “When Harry Met Sally” among other classics, and it does follow a lot of the same conventions we have come to expect from movies of this genre. But what keeps it from feeling ordinary is a terrific screenplay, smart direction and wonderful performances from its two undeniably adorable leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.
Radcliffe plays Wallace, a medical school dropout who has been through one failed relationship too many, and this makes him take a long break from the game of love. But while at a friend’s party, he ends up bumping into Chantry (Kazan), an animator with a sparkly personality that more or less matches his own. After walking her home, Chantry informs Wallace that she has a boyfriend named Ben (Rafe Spall) whom she has been with for a few years, and that she would love for them to just be friends. Wallace agrees to that, but as time goes on he wonders if they can be more than just friends.
The questions of whether or not men and women can be friends still seems to come up from time to time, and that’s even though the answer should be a resounding yes. But there’s always that one friend who belongs to someone else whom you pine for endlessly. “What If” really digs into that state of mind to where you can’t help but feel Wallace’s longings which he tries to cover up with a cynical take on love. We all have had those crushes on others, and we are constantly aware of how painful they can be when they turn into shattering examples of unrequited love.
I was reminded of that while watching “What If” because, unlike other romantic comedies, I really found myself desperately rooting for Wallace and Chantry to become a couple. A lot of it is thanks to the fantastic chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan as they bring this movie to life. Both work wonderfully off of each other, and once you see the two discussing the ingredients of a Fool’s Gold sandwich (Elvis Presley’s favorite), you can tell that they were made for each other.
Radcliffe may always have the shadow of Harry Potter hanging over him, but it’s really past the point where we have to recognize how talented an actor he truly is. As he heads from one genre to the next, the young actor shows that all the on the job training he got from playing J.K. Rowling’s unforgettable wizard has really paid off. While Wallace tries to put a solid front in an attempt to show that love has not really got him down, Radcliffe shows what’s going on beneath the surface without ever having to explain himself.
Kazan has a uniquely adorable beauty about her, and she continues to do great work in every film she’s in. As Chantry, she gets the opportunity to take a character who appears to be comfortable with where she’s at in her life, and follow her through a journey of self-discovery that is long overdue. She has a nice boyfriend and she’s doing the work she loves to do, but throughout “What If” we watch her as she begins to discover what she really wants out of life. As she makes these subtle changes in her character, Kazan shows us just how talented an actress she truly is.
There’s also a great scene-stealing performance from Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend, Allan. Always giving bad advice on women and yet having a lot more success with them than Wallace is, Driver has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that is irresistible, and it’s a blast watching him stumbling over his own words on a regular basis.
I also have to give credit to Rafe Spall who plays Chantry’s boyfriend, Ben. This could have been the usual douchebag boyfriend who deserves to be dropped flat, but Spall makes him a good hearted man who just doesn’t have his priorities straight.
“What If” was directed by Michael Dowse whose previous films include the two “FUBAR” movies and “Goon.” While he doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the romantic comedy wheel here, he does freshen up the formula to where you don’t feel like you are just watching something you’ve seen hundreds of times before. Along with screenwriter Elan Mastai, who based this screenplay on the play “Cigars and Toothpaste” by T. J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, he does a good job of keeping us emotionally involved in the plight of these should-be lovers all the way up to the end.
I still have issues with romantic comedies from time to time, but “What If” shows what good filmmakers can do with a formula that has been done to death. It also has two actors starring it whose careers we continue to watch grow with pleasure, and Radcliffe and Kazan have nowhere to go but up from here. This proved to be a lot more emotionally involving than I expected it to be.