TMN Movie Review: "What If"

Photo Credit: CBS Films

Rating: PG-13

Length: 102 minutes

Release Date: August 08, 2014

Directed by: Michael Dowse

Genre: Comedy / Drama / Romance


"What If," originally titled "The F-Word," is a tale reminiscent of "When Harry Met Sally" of two twenty-somethings who find themselves asking the age-old question, "Can a man and a woman really be just friends?" The film stars Daniel Radcliffe as Wallace, a charming and lovable medical-school dropout, and Zoe Kazan as animator and artist Chantry. "What If" is the latest from Michael Dowse who directed the 2011 sports comedy "Goon." It is written by Elan Mastai who expanded and adapted it from the play “Toothpaste and Cigars” by Canadian playwright T.J. Dawe.

Wallace works a menial job after having dropped out of medical school due to depression over a breakup. Chantry has a thriving career at an animation studio and is being pressured to accept a promotion she does not necessarily want. They both meet at a house party that officially marks Wallace's re-entry into the social world since his relationship ended a year prior. Chantry, who he encounters during a round of angst-laden refrigerator magnet poetry, wins him over almost immediately with her flirty banter and indie charm. The two leave the party together, but the smitten Wallace is dismayed to learn that Chantry has a boyfriend. They make a mutual decision to just be friends.

Allan (Adam Driver), Wallace's crazy, sexually ravenous best friend, prods his buddy to make a move on Chantry while Wallace insists that it is not necessary. He maintains that it is possible for a man and woman to have a platonic relationship and that he and Chantry are mature enough to do just that. However, he finds himself fraught with jealousy when trying to "just friend" it around Chantry and her boyfriend, making for some laughably awkward situations.

Meanwhile, Chantry is spending more and more time enjoying junk food and having quirky discussions with Wallace than she does with her long-term boyfriend Ben, a charming diplomat with minor violence issues. To further complicate things, Ben ends up moving abroad for a job with the United Nations, leaving Chantry struggling to uphold a relationship with a physically and emotionally absent boyfriend while Wallace tries desperately not to make a move on his lonely-but-still-attached friend. To make matters worse, Chantry's sister Dalia (Meagan Park) soon develops a romantic interest in Wallace, further complicating an already tense situation. Chantry becomes possessive of Wallace, and Wallace feels too attached to her to show any interest in her sister. This and other situations force the two of them to take a more honest look at their own desires, motives and secret agendas.

The film has a depth, wit and soul that is atypical of the genre. Rather than avoiding the big question of whether cross-gendered platonic relationships exist or allowing the characters to become rom-com caricatures who follow the predictable trajectory of denying feelings long enough to kiss just before the end credits roll, the film meets the issue head on. It invites the audience to contemplate the answer for themselves as they watch two relatable, endearing characters struggle to reconcile the lies they are selling family and friends about the nature of their relationship against the truth of how they really feel.

Radcliffe and Kazan have an warm, comfortable chemistry that easily sells their characters as a couple who share something truly special and unique. Radcliffe is brilliant as the broken-hearted nice guy trying desperately to conduct himself with caution and maturity despite his intense romantic yearning for his friend. Kazan appeals as the adorably quirky Chantry. She works extremely well with Radcliffe and gives her performance a sweetness and subtlety that makes it easy to see why his character fell immediately in love with hers.

"What If"  wins major creative points with an upbeat score from A.C. Newman of Canadian indie rock band The New Pornographers. Michael Dowse, who directed two music videos for the band, uses the music to great effect, underscoring the movie's warm, indie, slightly offbeat feel with rousing, animated tune. Exquisite cinematography transforms Toronto, Canada into a character of its own. The city is allowed to shine as itself for once without being passed off to audiences as New York City. Its best hangouts and shops are showcased, making the film read like a sort of love letter to the city.

"What If" is a romantic comedy film for a new generation. The movie tips its hat to genre conventions but rises above formulaic predictability with engaging characters, a smart script and a satisfying storyline. It makes a perfect date movie and is sure to win over twenty-something audiences who wonder out loud about the very topic addressed in the film or can at least relate to those who do.

Tags: What If