Daniel Radcliffe continues to explore all the possible acting options open to him in a post-Harry Potter world. In What If, he plays Wallace, a medical school dropout who’s just re-entering the social scene after a traumatic split with his girlfriend. Almost immediately, he meets the pixieish (aren’t they all?) Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who works for an animation studio and — unfortunately for Wallace — lives with her hotshot UN economic negotiator boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Since his own relationship was wrecked by his ex’s infidelity, Wallace must face the question himself: can he settle for simply being friends with Chantry or will he make his move?
Radcliffe and Kazan have a natural chemistry that does a lot of the heavy lifting for What If. There are strong sexual sparks there as well – a little disconcerting from The Boy Who Lived, but let’s face it, he’s a man now –- and the pair have a light, easy banter that makes it easy for them to deliver the rapid-fire dialogue supplied by screenwriter Elan Mastai (adapting T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play Toothpaste and Cigars). Even if most of what they say doesn’t resemble how people talk in the real world, both actors still dig into it with gusto.
Directed by Michael Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete Tong), What If wants — almost desperately — to be a smarter, hipper version of the modern rom-com (it was originally titled The F Word since Wallace find himself in the “friend zone”). The problem is that whenever the film starts to address the issues its narrative revolves around, such as the boundaries of seemingly platonic male/female relationships, it pulls back and resorts to cheaper jokes (many from the mouth of Girls’ Adam Driver as Wallace’s hedonistic friend Allan) or outright cutesiness. There’s a twee sensibility to What If that grows increasingly more irritating as the film goes on, especially since it does its best at first to mostly dodge the plot twists that one might find in a movie of this sort.
The key word there is “mostly,” because in its third act, What If takes a sharp turn into the near-ridiculous and fully embraces the conventions of its genre. People blithely hop on and off planes and fly from the main setting of Toronto to Dublin with barely a backward glance or sign of jet lag, while one crucial exchange rings completely false because it involves two characters not listening to each other for the first time since we’ve met them. The story wraps up in a glib, facile manner that’s almost insulting because it just does away with any moral quandaries that the characters may have faced along the way.
Despite the script’s slide into mediocrity, however, What If does have its pleasures, and the biggest is its leading man. Radcliffe fully embodies Wallace and pulls off the neat trick of making him angst-ridden without being narcissistic or self-pitying –- a tough assignment in a role which could easily slide into tedious whining. But Radcliffe never lets that happen and you’re always rooting for Wallace even when the script lets him off too easily. The actor has been aggressively pursuing a diverse roster of roles since graduating from Hogwarts (we’ll next see him in perhaps his darkest venture yet, an adaptation of Joe Hill’s horror novel Horns), and Wallace is the latest to prove that Radcliffe does have the craftsmanship and talent to effectively transition into an adult career.
Kazan is fine but her Chantry’s motivations are a little murkier: there’s little surface evidence that there’s anything fundamentally wrong in her relationship with Ben. The latter is wisely not portrayed as the stereotypical career obsessive who puts his work before everything else, but is the film saying that no matter how stable and healthy your personal situation might appear to be, true love is going to have its way no matter what?
I suppose that’s the case, but the ramifications of it are never fully explored. What If is charming and funny, but also too cute and insubstantial to leave much of an impression – unlike its leading man, who won’t be asking “What if?” about his own career if his performance here is any indication.
What If is out in theaters Friday, August 8.