Romantic comedies didn’t always carry with them the air of immediate dismissal, that eye-rolling weariness borne of dozens of interchangeable boy-meets-girl plots and posters featuring stars playfully leaning into or on one another. Romance at the movies wasn’t always overfilled with clichés, stuffed with safe jokes heard a hundred times before. The rom-com can be a place for actual characters instead of cardboard theater-lobby displays, right? People you actually want to see get together for reasons other than the fact that that’s what’s supposed to happen in these movies?
What If doesn’t ask “what if” that were true. It just answers with a confident “yes.”
The film was originally titled The F Word, and still carries that title in most markets that aren’t the U.S., making one wonder just how easily offended the distributor thinks we are (the F word in question is “friends”). Fortunately, the newer, blander title is really the only thing generic about What If. Adapted and expanded by screenwriter Elan Mastai from a fringe festival play by Canadian playwrights TJ Dawe and Mike Rinaldi, the film manages a neat trick of sticking close to formula while still being unexpectedly fresh.
Part of that is just how self-aware Mastai’s script is, without really wandering into self-referential navel-gazing. Everything is familiar, but slightly off-kilter, like walking into your home to find all the furniture shifted a few inches from where it normally sits. Daniel Radcliffe plays Wallace, a med school dropout who meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party and falls for her quickly; only to find out after he walks her home that she lives with her boyfriend and is just looking for new friends, though the connection between them is undeniable.
It takes a long time to reveal that boyfriend, and when we do finally meet up with Ben (Rafe Spall), we’re treated to a quick moment of (not so) irrational jealousy before we discover that despite being the long term boyfriend we’re supposed to be rooting against, he’s actually not really a bad guy. The film keeps teasing us with moments where it might make him into a cheater, a neglecter, a monster of some sort; and then director Michael Dowse refuses to let us off the hook. It has to be just as hard for us to hate Ben as it is for Chantry to throw him over for Wallace, no matter how charming he is.
And he’s plenty charming, as is she, as we’re treated to their lengthy, quirky, non-courtship courtship through the streets and storefronts of Toronto. The two are almost impossibly cute together – setting their second meeting at a screening of The Princess Bride basically puts their adorability factor off the charts. It might border on too twee for some, but Radcliffe and Kazan’s chemistry is too endearing to write off that easily, and the film cuts the sweetness by giving the pair a slightly gross shared sense of humor centered around discussions of peanut butter, jelly, and bacon sandwiches and celebrity feces. It still plays on the cuter side of disgusting, but just try to imagine, say, McConaughey and Parker having anything remotely like this banter in something like Failure to Launch.
Wallace’s best friend (and Chantry’s cousin) Allan (Adam Driver, riffing effectively in the same awkward oddball territory as his role on Girls) also provides alternate programming for those averse to the gentler interactions of the central pair. At the same party where those two meet-cute, Allan has more of a meet-carnal with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), and their horny romance hilariously provides the sexual spark that Wallace and Chantry’s can’t have. But their love is also genuine, giving their characters a depth that goes beyond silly (but great) jokes like Allan’s overriding love of post-intercourse nachos.
What If doesn’t escape common tropes – tragicomic misunderstandings getting in the way, a poignant wedding sequence, grand romantic gestures gone both right and wrong – but it also isn’t really trying to get away from them. The film recognizes and sticks close to the comforting romantic comedy blueprint while remaining aware that the best romantic comedies have their own personalities. The resulting movie gives us what we need from a romantic comedy instead of what the averaged opinions of a focus group might claim we want from one.