Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Adam Driver (Inside Llewyn Davis), Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment), Rafe Spall (I Give It a Year)
Director: Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight)
Writer: Elan Mastai (Alone in the Dark)
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Release Date: 8 August (US), 20 August (UK)
The romantic comedy genre is so stale and predictable at this point that even making that statement is pretty redundant. But, much like the horror genre, there are usually one or two every year that make the concept seem fresh and enjoyable again. I wouldn’t say What If is one of those movies, but is certainly comes closer than most.
What If’s premise revolves around that time-honoured classic situation: the friend zone. Whilst the idea of basing the entire movie around that does seem stale, it does at least view it from a mature and very un-movie like standpoint. There’s no wacky misunderstanding or questionable character behaviour, hallmarks of the bad rom com, and instead the story does take the more interesting route of viewing this situation in a down-to-earth manner. The film does try to evoke classics like Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally, and though it never reaches the heights of those movies it does at least make a concerted effort. But just because it avoids certain rom com stereotypes, that doesn’t mean it avoids all of them. There are still large plot coincidences to create awkward situations, some slapstick and plenty of cheesy speeches, and even when viewed through the film’s cynical and muddy lens it still doesn’t make them seem any fresher. The film does also drag on too long despite a reasonable runtime, which especially annoys during the more predictable parts of the narrative.
What ultimately makes What If a worthwhile watch is its two lead stars. Daniel Radcliffe seems right at home in this sort of material, able to show a more human and dorky side of himself that his previous roles haven’t allowed. Zoe Kazan is also an enjoyable presence, even if her character is basically a less pixie-like version of her role in Ruby Sparks. Their chemistry together is fantastic, managing to take every bit of the somewhat overwritten dialogue and make it sound like eloquent small talk. By themselves they do OK, but when together the screen lights up. Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis come off as kind of obnoxious, which is what their characters are supposed to be but it does seem a little overplayed especially given the otherwise grounded nature of the film. Regardless, both of them have their good moments, most notably a scene between Radcliffe and Davis before the latter’s wedding. The cast member I take the most umbrage with is Rafe Spall, mainly due to the somewhat muddled nature of the character’s morality. In the standard rom com, his role would most certainly played for the highest levels of asshole so that the audience wants our hero to succeed that much more. But in a bizarre mix, whilst the script certainly doesn’t paint the character of Ben as an asshole, Spall’s performance does and that ultimately overpowers the words. Honestly, I think a far more ambiguous approach to the character would have made the film so much better, as it would have again ground the film in reality and made Radcliffe’s plight that much more compelling.
What If is ultimately a perfectly decent piece of fluff that thinks it’s more subversive than it actually is. An overall generic and drawn out premise combined with and unfocused tone grates, but is saved by Radcliffe and Kazan’s spell-binding chemistry and a few genuinely touching moments. It’s pretty inconsequential, but if you’re struggling for something to watch on date night it’s not a bad idea.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10