What If (2014) – Review

Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter CV is filling up nicely.  Fortunately, he’s a good enough actor to not be forced into doing things he doesn’t want to for the sake of getting a job, and he’s a smart enough guy to know that he doesn’t have to go out of his way to change his image.  The latest in the cannon is What If, a snappy, young-studs-in-the-city rom-com from director Michael Dowse, adapted from the stage play Toothpaste and Cigars.  The film drops Radcliffe in rather unfamiliar territory; he’s played Alan Ginsberg, he’s been haunted by a woman in black, and he’s about to be Dr. Frankenstein’s sidekick, but until now we’ve yet to see him, nor would we necessarily expect to see him, as the hot, romantic lead.

His unfamiliarity with the genre shows on occasion, where he looks just a little uncertain, a little uncomfortable, as he chars through some of the more flirty dialogue or strips down to the bone for a night-time swim with his love interest, Chantry (Kazan), by his side.  There’s almost a sense that he’s just a little over-eager to integrate himself with the role, as a way of proving to either himself or the audience that he wants to be involved with the lighter, fluffier stuff just as much as the more experimental pieces.  Yet it would be unfair to chastise him too much for it, what with it being very much an occasional happenstance; for the most part, he’s really good.  Delivering Elan Mastai’s sharp script with ease and fun, and possessing an impressive knack for comedic timing, he lends the film a smart, charming sophistication, and there’s no doubt he can have a bright future in the genre if he so pleases.

Treading very safe, very familiar lines is the plot itself which, despite offering interesting, funny characters who we care about, doesn’t do very much to break the mould.  Two young studs living in a cool town (in this case, Toronto) with good jobs, they get on really well, there’s strong romantic tension, but there are complications.  Will they get together by the end?  We’ve seen it a million times before; That Awkward Moment, the Zac Effron/Imogen Poots vehicle from earlier this year is basically the same film, and I don’t say that flippantly.  The plots are exactly the same (which is made all the more ironic by the fact that Mackenzie Davis appears in both).  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that; it’s a tried and tested story that clearly works with audiences, myself included, but it’s always a bit nice when a genre film moves in a different direction from the norm.

On the flip side, the whole thing is smart, snappy and surprisingly funny.  The opening act houses some proper belly laughs; one dinner party sequence in particular which had the entire audience whooping uncontrollably, and by the end I had lost count of how many times I had given myself over to the funnies.  The comedy sort of keeps things alive in between the more serious, relationshipy stuff, which itself is handled pretty well (we care enormously about the two leads) but which also noticeably draws the film out a little into the third act, where humour begins to take back seat role.

Co-stars Zoe Kazan and Adam Driver provide some good, smart riffing and dirty jokes respectively, and there’s a nice backdrop and a good soundtrack, but Radcliffe is certainly the best thing about the film.  Even with his aforementioned unfamiliarity with the type of role, he still holds everything together to make one nice, neat little package that should win everyone over.  While it feels like there are flaws present, they’re inconspicuous and un-condemning, leaving room for those of us who didn’t fall completely in love with it to walk out feeling perfectly satisfied.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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