What If’s plot isn’t new. Countless comedies have harvested their laughs by asking the age old question can a man and a woman ever be just friends? Even so, there is something different about What If. It fits into that vein of modern, naturalistic, almost uncomfortable sphere of romantic comedy that includes 500 Days Of Summer, Silver Linings Playbook and Ruby Sparks and it takes us to some surprising places.
As the guy who hates cheating, loves The Princess Bride and quit his medical career, Daniel Radcliffe makes an unexpected romantic hero. Since the close of the Harry Potter franchise, Radcliffe has tried his hand at varied genres from horror (The Woman In Black) to biographical drama (Kill Your Darlings) and here he seems equally at home as the romantic lead. Radcliffe’s performance as Wallace, the guy trapped in the ‘friend zone’, is honest, warm and largely responsible for What If’s appeal.
His friend / love interest, Chantry, played by a pretty and slightly awkward Zoe Kazan (writer and star of 2012s impressive rom-com Ruby Sparks), already has a boyfriend. Should Wallace wait for their relationship to break down, or should he swoop in and break them up? Of course neither option is ideal and Wallace’s romantic affections develop alongside their flourishing friendship.
Adapting the play Toothpaste And Cigars, Elan Mastai’s dialogue is bubbly and quirky. The couple talk about everything from Elvis’ backed up bowels to dissecting dead bodies. It’s an odd chemistry but it feels very honest, thanks to the natural delivery from Radcliffe and Kazan. In spite of the more ridiculous, comedic couple Wallace looks to for advice, there are some interesting characters on the periphery too. Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) is elevated to something more than the typical mean or threatened other half. Mastai’s screenplay leaves many questions about him open and no one in the love triangle is left blameless. One of the film’s funniest scenes arrives when Ben and Wallace first meet – the encounter is packed with cloaked malice that culminates in hilarious slapstick. More sincere though is Wallace’s sister, Ellie (Jemima Rooper), who comes to terms with a her single parent situation in a meagre, but no less moving, handful of scenes.
Where What If delivers comedically through Mastai’s blend of zesty dialogue and sparse use of physical comedy, it also delivers romantically. Director Michael Dowse never really lets us know what Chantry is thinking while simultaneously delivering some tense romantic moments in a dressing room and during a skinny dip.
What If falls short of the breakthrough rom-com 500 Days Of Summer – which drew on those early Woody Allen movies Annie Hall and Manhattan – but it’s not far behind. Ultimately What If manages to turn some cliches on their head – one particular diner scene is especially surprising – while playing into others a little too readily. Friendship and cheating are tricky issues where the lines are never crystal clear. Taking on one of film’s age old concepts is equally problematic. Here the filmmakers balance truthful with fun in ways audiences won’t necessarily expect and that makes What If a fine summer rom-com for 2014.
VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 4/5
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