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Review: What If (2014)

What If (2014)

Directed by: Michael Dowse

Premise: A single man (Daniel Radcliffe) and a woman in a committed relationship (Zoe Kazan) become fast friends and struggle over the boundaries between being platonic and romantically involved. 

What Works: Love stories generally succeed or fail depending upon the likeability of the couple. The lovers must be a good fit and audiences must want to see them get together and live happily ever after. What If features actors Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as the centerpiece of the movie and they are adorable together. Some of their success as a couple is the visual juxtaposition of these two people on screen; Kazan has a slightly aloof screen persona and Radcliffe proves a fitting match. This is a very playful movie. The script includes a lot of witty and idiosyncratic dialogue and yet the filmmakers generally strike a balance between indulging eccentricity and creating genuine characters. Radcliffe and Kazan’s characters have lives and histories outside of their relationship with each other and there is a nice balance in the film between their love story and the rest of their lives such as their family relations and their occupations.  The cast also includes Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis as a couple whose romance parallels Radcliffe and Kazan’s characters and Driver and Davis are equally convincing and add a lot of humor while they serve an expository function. The other respect in which What If is impressive is that it’s a love story that is about something. Riffing on the same issues of When Harry Met Sally, this film is about the boundaries that exist between platonic friends, especially when those friends are of the opposite sex, and the moviemakers deal with that tension intelligently. What If also incorporates some unusual cinematic choices. Zoe Kazan’s character is a cartoonist and so the movie includes animated bits that add some character and texture to the movie.

What Doesn’t: Although What If has a lot of unique qualities in the periphery of the film, the plot ultimately follows the template of the typical romantic comedy. In terms of the plotting, there aren’t many surprises here and viewers who have seen When Harry Met Sally or Say Anything will be able to chart where this going. The filmmakers attempt to throw the audience a curve ball with the film’s indie qualities but even that is familiar from movies like Garden State and AdventurelandWhat If is a little too self-consciously weird and idiosyncratic. The dialogue is sharp and fun and the actors deliver it well but a film can be too cute for its own good. What If sn’t very long—it only runs ninety-eight minutes—but the backend of it is padded. As the filmmakers work though the bullet points of the romantic comedy, the story eventually comes to the point where the couple separates before getting back together and reasserting their love for one another. The trouble is structural. A love story gets its drama by two people wanting to be together and some outside force keeps them apart. As the plot of What If works out, the obstacle is removed before the couple separates and the conditions of their separation are contrived, in part because the actors do such a good job of convincing the audience that these two people want to be together. That reveals a more fundamental flaws of What If. The movie does not really create tension. In order for Radcliffe and Kazan’s characters to get together, she has to break up with her boyfriend. Admirably, the filmmakers don’t cop out by making him a bad person but they also don’t make it clear that the breakup represents a sacrifice.

Bottom Line: What If is a fine picture. It does not break much new ground and it is ultimately a routine walkthrough of the romantic comedy formula but it’s done with such humor and has such great characters that its makers are able to overcome their reliance on conventions.

Episode: #505 (August 24, 2014)