The romantic comedy What If is adapted from T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play Toothpaste and Cigars. I’ve never seen the play, but somehow I get the feeling that I might have appreciated the film better if I’d seen the same group of actors perform this material on the stage. The young cast brings a lot of energy and talent to this affair, enough to make you wish that this wispy little film had been equal to their efforts.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Wallace, a British med-school dropout who’s living with his sister and working a dead-end job in Toronto. At a party, he meets his best friend’s cousin Chantry (Zoe Kazan) and thinks she’s the cure for his heartache from an acrimonious breakup. That is, until she casually mentions Ben (Rafe Spall), her boyfriend of five years.
The whole plot is about Wallace being platonic friends with Chantry while debating with his best friend (Adam Driver) the ethics of pursuing a woman who’s already taken. He has ample opportunity to do both things when Ben wins a promotion that removes him to Europe for months at a time. Sadly, Elan Mastai’s script only maneuvers the setup into hackneyed situations. When a drunken Chantry calls up Ben for some long-distance phone sex, you know that the call’s going to catch him in a business meeting. This story has been done before and better in many other films, and the back-and-forth wears thin before the movie’s even half over.
Director Michael Dowse is an Ontarian with a good feel for the Toronto setting, and he pulls off a skillful slapstick set piece when Ben, chopping vegetables for a dinner party, gets jalapeño juice in his eyes and Wallace’s attempts to help only make things worse. Dowse seems to recognize the material’s flimsiness, but his attempts to paper over it are forced and ham-handedly whimsical, featuring animated interludes of a winged cartoon Chantry (the character works as an animator) and a fantasy sequence in which Chantry literally disappears in a puff of smoke. The movie also stops dead to give us the recipe of Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich, though that sets up a nifty callback near the end.
Wallace and Chantry share a wry, archly self-deprecating sense of humor that I can frankly live without, but the actors do use it to convince you that their characters dig each other. The spiky Radcliffe and the doll-like Kazan make a cute couple and not just because everybody in the movie seems to be taller than them. They both negotiate the script’s verbiage with great skill, and Kazan (who starred in and wrote the far superior Ruby Sparks) does well with Chantry’s unease as she’s torn between staying in Toronto, joining Ben in Dublin, and taking a promotion that will move her to Taiwan. Meanwhile, Radcliffe slots so effortlessly into this romantic comedy, you’d think he’d spent his entire acting career doing movies like these. The specter of Harry Potter was always going to follow this actor around, but it won’t be for long if he keeps giving performances like this one.
Radcliffe’s repartee is just as crisp with Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend, who has a memorable scene in which he exults over a plate of nachos. The largely Canadian supporting cast sparkles as well, with Megan Park as Chantry’s sister who sees Wallace as a possible source of rebound sex, Jemima Rooper as Wallace’s sister, Tommie-Amber Pirie as his feared ex who winds up humiliating herself in a chance encounter with him, and Jordan Hayes as a maid of honor who gives a tearful wedding toast. (Sadly, we hear only the end of it: “Because of you, I learned so much about gambling addiction and identity theft and the Romanian legal system!”) Dowse manages to give all these actors the chance to generate a laugh for themselves without interrupting the story’s momentum, and the depth of their contributions give What If a genuine charm and an ersatz brilliance that one could mistake for the real thing.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Michael Dowse. Written by Elan Mastai, based on T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play. Rated PG-13.