What If is a strange film for one reason. For a lot of people, leading man Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry and nothing else, such is the baggage he brings with him to the screen but, three years after his most famous role came to an end, post-Potter Radcliffe – whilst not without some impressive work – is still yet to fully establish himself as a reliable leading man (on screen at least), especially when the film requires him to also convince as a romantic lead.
What If, which requires him to be just that, is a weird film for him to be doing if not just for the choices he’s made over the last few years – he’s done everything in his power to escape that decade-long role, and this is far and away the most conventional part of his career.
On paper, this is the kind of movie Matthew McConaughey used to do before the McConaissance, but here’s Radcliffe, coming off of comparatively risky choices like The Woman In Black and Kill Your Darlings (and up next, Horns), only to choose a seemingly run-of-the-mill rom-com for his next project.
Once that strangeness wears off, however, it becomes clear that he’s actually a very good fit for this sort of thing. His Wallace slots into the tried and true tradition of uncomfortable, non-threatening Brits trying their hardest to avoid potentially awkward situations, but he somehow has a little more edge to him than most of the characters Hugh Grant portrayed in the 90s.
Wallace is down on his luck when we meet him – single for over a year, in a dead-end job after dropping out of medical school and living in his sister’s attic. One meet-cute later, however, and he’s tangled up in decidedly complicated feelings for the much more ‘together’ Chantry (Ruby Sparks writer and co-star Zoe Kazan), who has given him her number before casually mentioning her solid, five-year-long relationship with live-in boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall).
Firstly, it’s slightly disappointing that, despite the marketing campaign for the film focusing on the question – “good friends; bad idea?” – as well as Radcliffe’s own spot-on commentary regarding the modern concept of ‘the friend zone’ in interviews, What If doesn’t really have anything new to say about the situation. This is possibly by design, for life doesn’t usually offer up definitive answers for predicaments like this.
It’s a worthy entry into the subgenre of friends figuring each other out romantically – a reverse Friends With Benefits if you will – but there’s nothing groundbreaking or particularly subversive here. There’s a nice, gentle B-story of how young, ambitious people must balance love and career, but even that takes a back seat once we’re faced with the question of whether Wallace and Chantry belong together or not.
The smaller problems don’t necessarily matter, of course, providing the two leads are charming and affable enough to carry us through, and Radcliffe and Kazan continuously lift the film above the sum of its other parts. The unabashed male focus is a little bit different, too, and this is where our familiarity with the leading man comes in handy.
It’s easily compared to fellow indie rom-com 500 Days Of Summer and, though it isn’t quite there, it’s to What If’s credit that the comparison isn’t embarrassing. The other notable casting choice is Adam Driver, who is currently best known for his role in HBO’s Girls but will soon be blasted into the stratosphere with Star Wars: Episode VII. He’s occupying the familiar role of quirky best friend along with his own love interest (Mackenzie Davis), and Allan is not very far removed from Girls’ Adam at all. He is, however, one of the film’s highlights, brilliantly bouncing off of Radcliffe’s straight man and predictably providing us with the funniest moments.
What If isn’t perfect, or even particularly memorable, with some disappointing detours into the over-familiar towards the end and a few convenient resolutions to some of the film’s most refreshing obstacles, negating what could have otherwise set the film apart. The film has plenty of fun with certain outdated rom-com elements but, despite being charming enough, falls for them just as often.
What If is out in UK cinemas on the 20th August.
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