This review is also up at Channel 24.
What it's about
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is still struggling to get over a particularly painful breakup that left him depressed, anti-social and professionally adrift, but when he meets and quickly forms a connection with Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party he is begrudgingly forced to attend by his roommate, he believes that he has finally found a way out of the darkness and towards the potential of his first real romance in years. Unfortunately, Zoe is in a happy, committed relationship with her boyfriend of five years, Ben (Rafe Spall). Trying instead to be “just friends” with her, Wallace, is forced to come to terms with whether he can ever really be friends with someone with whom he is hopelessly in love.
What we thought
Forced to abandon its original title, The F Word, the unimaginatively retitled What If may as well be called When Wallace Met Chantry - so similar is it to a certain classic '80s romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. Like When Harry Met Sally, What If is an otherwise fairly conventional romantic comedy about two very likeable people trying to navigate the murky waters between romance and friendship. It's obviously not as good as When Harry Met Sally because, when it comes to fairly mainstream romcoms, what is, but that doesn't stop it from being the best romantic comedy to come along in a very, very long time.
Zoe Kazan (who, incidentally, I dare you not to develop a huge crush on after seeing this movie – as long as you're that way inclined, of course) is probably best known for Ruby Sparks, a film that spends its entire running time deconstructing the very idea of the romantic comedy, so it's interesting seeing her so wholly embracing the conventions, even the cliches, of the genre here. Similarly, post-Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has made the clear and probably quite wise career move of avoiding the mainstream at every possible opportunity (and, if not, at least going for something like the pleasingly bonkers dark-fantasy, Horns) so his appearance in a mainstream romcom is no less surprising.
And make no mistake, despite the off-beat charm of its characters and its occasional flights of whimsy, this is very much a mainstream romantic comedy. It's largely very predictable and it never shies away from a plot contrivance here and a bit of well-worn genre formula there, but what What If really proves, is that you don't have to break a genre to make it work. It's so successful at this, in fact, that it leaves one wondering why exactly most romantic comedies can't be this good.
It doesn't seem particularly complicated. Take a sharp, witty script (this time based on a play by T.J. Draw and Michael Rinaldi, adapted for the screen by Elan Mastai), mix it with likeable but well-developed characters and top it off with copious doses of heart and hearty laughs and, voila, romantic comedy gold!
It may not seem like much but it's amazing how rare something like What If is: it's a romantic comedy that is genuinely romantic and genuinely funny. Considering that most run of the mill romantic comedies are more likely to make you vomit than make you swoon, while making you want to slit your wrists rather than laugh, What If's apparently simple pleasures are most definitely nothing to be shrugged off.
It also undoubtedly helps that the impossibly charming duo of Kazan and Radcliffe get some terrific support, most notably from a scene-stealing Adam Driver, whose crazy, PDA-heavy but surprisingly effective relationship with his girlfriend-turned-fiance-turned-wife, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), is the source of both plenty of laughs and a nice counterpoint to Wallace and Chantry will-they-won't-they friendship. Also, in the same way that New York or Paris often feels like supporting characters in many great romantic movies (at least half of which seem to be written by Woody Allen), Toronto gets its chance in the sun by making its most notable appearance since it was the all-important backdrop of 2010's cult-classic, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Go see it, basically, but I should warn you, despite the fact that there's really not much to spoil, do try and avoid the film's trailer as it somehow still manages to give way too much away. Amazing how they manage that, isn't it?