It has been 25 years since "When Harry Met Sally," the ultimate can-men-and-women-be-just-friends romantic comedy, hit theatres, and as we've recently discussed, few films of that sort have matched it in that time. But lately Hollywood has been taking a crack at that unique premise with mixed results, most notably with "Friends With Benefits" and "No Strings Attached," both released within months of each other and both not very good. So "Goon" and "Fubar" director Michael Dowse has a high bar to reach with "What If," and while the movie doesn't even make it to the same ballpark as the Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan classic, there's enough pleasure and small charms within its modest ambitions that it succeeds in putting an enjoyable spin on what has often proved a tired concept.
While authenticity might be too strong a word, "What If" presents a world that feels inhabited by real characters in a real city (the movie was shot in Toronto and doesn't pretend otherwise). The devil is in the details, and the opening party sequence actually feels like....well, a real party. Hanging out in the kitchen, the sad sack, anti-romantic office drone Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) runs into animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan), and moving past the seemingly federally mandated meet-cute, the pair spend the night talking. Wallace, still nursing the wounds from his last relationship where he literally stumbled in on his girlfriend making out with another man, sees a future with Chantry. He's making all the right moves as he walks her home, but just when he's about to close the deal, Chantry reveals she has a boyfriend. Still, Chantry would really like to be friends with Wallace, and gives him her number...which he later throws away, sensing the futility of pursuing anything further.
At first, Wallace knows it's foolish to pine after a woman already in a committed relationship, but when he runs into her weeks later (at a screening of "The Princess Bride" no less, perhaps in a sly nod to Rob Reiner) it turns out the flame hasn't been entirely extinguished. And while he knows it's completely a bad idea, Wallace decides to give hanging out with Chantry another chance. It's a desperate move made all the more curious by his belief that relationships that have "dirty" beginnings don't last. However, Wallace's best friend Allan (Adam Driver) makes a vigorous case for the defense. His sexually charged and deeply connected relationship with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) didn't have the cleanest of starts, but they are doing just fine, and as Wallace soon finds out, he's actually stepped into a much more complex situation than he imagined.
Essentially, he is in a no-win scenario. Too much time has passed for him to openly declare his feelings for Chantry. He can't subtly start a campaign against her smarmy but decent copyright lawyer boyfriend or else he'll be the one seen as the reason they broken up, and Chantry won't want to date him. And he can't just let the situation as it is play out, because each passing moment makes Wallace even more crazy for Chantry. In short, he has options, but none of them are ideal, and all of them end in heartbreak. So where does a romantic comedy go when the romance between the two leads has to be hidden?
Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival last year (under its original, and better, title "The F Word"), the early buzz on the movie was that it's a subversive take on the rom-com, and that's only partially true. The script by Elan Mastai (based on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi) does indeed try to avoid familiar tropes. Perhaps the biggest example would be in the treatment of Ben (Rafe Spall), Chantry's boyfriend. He's not an outright villain: He's clearly insensitive but protective of his relationship with Chantry, and leery of guys like Wallace. And more crucially, we see why Chantry would be attracted to Ben in the first place: He's devoted, successful, and genuinely cares for her, even if he can aloof and oblivious. You don't get an obstacle for our hero this well rounded in rom-coms very often. And there are additional little moments that work too, such as a race-to-the-airport sequence that takes climaxes unexpectedly. But for all those counter-intuitive strategies, 'What If' can't escape its destiny.
Namely, at the end of day, the movie is a rom-com, and as "What If" shifts into the final third —with speeches, tears and big decisions being made— the film starts being the very conventional thing it tried very hard not to be. It's very nature is a significant blow to the foundation of "What If," which sadly heightens other unfortunate elements of the movie, such as the detours into very broad, slapstick comedy that seem edited in from another script. The occasional animated sequences also feel out of place, adding a layer of twee incongruous with the rest of the film. And these tonal inconsistencies undermine Dowse's otherwise careful attempts to do something different with the genre. At times, you can feel "What If" battling between being two different kinds of movies, rather than finding the sweet spot between genres.
"What If" is always thoroughly pleasant, and that's entirely due to the cast, who all turn in breezy performances. Radcliffe and Kazan each do a good job, even if their chemistry could be better. And as you might expect, Driver is a freight train who steals the movie pretty much every time he's on screen, while Mackenzie has the task of keeping up with him, and admirably does for the most part. But even perfectly good turns from this attractive ensemble can't patch up the mounting minor issues piling up onto "What If." As far as diversions go, you can do far worse, but this is a one night stand of a movie, and not the long term keeper you'll want to call in a few days to make another date. [B-]