Full of heart, wit and whimsy and ranking relatively light on the cloying scale, Michael Dowse’s What If (formerly titled The F Word) is an all-too rare creature: an American indie rom com that can be taken seriously and doesn’t leave you wondering where all the real people are.
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a med school dropout, living in his sister’s attic in Toronto, spending his free time on the roof of her house listening to year-old voice mails from his ex and nursing a scarred psyche from said brutal breakup. It’s been a year, and to be honest, Wallace doesn’t seem like he’s even close to getting over it. In fact, he’s given up on love.
At a party thrown by his best friend (and seemingly polar opposite), Allan (an exceptional Adam Driver), Wallace is seen moping around in the kitchen, composing fridge magnet poems and keeping to himself when he meets Allan’s animator cousin, Chantry (Zoe Kazan).
After a few exchanges of slightly uncomfortable, yet witty banter at the party and in spite of his resolve to avoid any sort of romantic entanglement, Wallace finds himself drawn to Chantry, even to the point of accepting her phone number. That is until she drops the dreaded B-word, as in, “My boyfriend will be worried about what happened to me.” After which, Wallace proceeds to ascend to his aerie retreat and let her phone number drift off into the night. But we all know this isn’t going to end there, right?
Later, after both attend a screening of The Princess Bride solo (a little on the nose, granted), the connection grows and the two agree to be friends, although it’s perfectly obvious that there’s more to it than that.
As the one sans entanglement, Wallace has the heavier emotional load in this equation. Chantry can, initially at least, bury any feelings she might have and act like she and Wallace are just friends. After all, she’s been living with her boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), for five years, and that’s what’s important, right? Right? Wallace, on the other hand, is ripe for the emotional fall. On the other hand, burying feelings while you’re in a committed relationship can’t be easy, and as the saying goes, something’s gotta give!
And then there’s Ben. What If takes a risk, here. On the one hand, it’s never a good idea to have one of your protagonists break up a relationship. Makes them a dick. On the other hand, we start to disrespect someone who’s in a long-term bad relationship and really, this is a comedy. So what to do? Well, you make the boyfriend just enough of a self-involved prick to make it okay and you hint that possibly, the relationship has run its course. What If threads the needle reasonably well, and in one of its occasional stereotypical touches, throws in a convenient roadblock like a job offer for Ben … in Europe.
Elan Mastai’s script (from the play Toothpaste and Cigars” by T.J. Dawe & Michael Rinaldi) is a fresh mix of standard rom-com with a hefty dose of old-school screwball comedy, and Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Goon) and the excellent ensemble pull it off, making it seem (mostly) fresh. Of course, Wallace and Chantry meet cute and yeah, each has the required whack-a-doodle sidekick (Driver’s Allan for Wallace and Megan Park as Chantry’s borderline insane sister, Dalia), and yeah, there’s the standard “I’m addressing you all, but am really only talking to one person” best man wedding speech, but overall it only occasionally feels canned. Not only that, for a film based on a stage play, it’s remarkably open and lively. Many (most?) of said adaptations feel, well, stagey. What If manages to avoid those pitfalls, instead opening it up, especially when it uses the Toronto setting as a member of the ensemble.
As for the screwball elements, there is a certain amount of homage paid to classics like Bringing Up Baby and The Thin Man in Wallace and Chantry’s banter. (A delightfully manic scene involving a thinly veiled threat of castration, jalapenos, eye wash, and an accidental defenestration is pure, giddy joy.)
The cast is overall, top-notch. I can’t remember a time when a superstar actor known for one role took so many chances. The pitfalls in Radcliffe’s way were legion, and he has moved deftly from stage (drama and musical comedy) to TV to indie fare with agility, taking projects that test his range and skills, rather than resting on his star power.
Driver is pitch-perfect as Wallace’s anti-Jiminy Cricket. His advice is at least as often terrible as it is helpful, but he is all heart, and even when he’s screaming absurd statements about sex and nachos (one of the film’s biggest laughs), he makes an odd sort of sense. Every moment he’s on screen is a delight, since we have no idea what might come out of his often deranged mouth.
Kazan, Park and Mackenzie Davis as Allan’s love interest, Nicole, are equally as game for the task. Kazan shows a real gift for screwball comedy, both verbally and physically and is no slouch in the emotional roller coaster department. Davis’ Nicole is the perfect partner for Driver’s Allan. The two are like a pair of well-meaning bulls in the china shop that is their friends’ lives, but they make it work. Of the six principals, Park and Spall’s roles are the most under-written. They’re entertaining in their one-note-ness, but less than fully fleshed out as characters, serving mainly as devices to move Chantry and Wallace towards one another.
At the risk of infuriating the Internet by making comparisons that I shouldn’t (I’m really not making the comparison, BTW), Radcliffe and Kazan play well enough off each other to bring to mind a less neurotic Woody Allen and a less “Lah dee dah!” Diane Keaton. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy that more often than not, lands on the right side of the Too Twee line.
Director: Michael Dowse
Writers: Elan Mastai (screenplay); T.J. Dawe, Michael Rinaldi (play)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis
Release Date: Aug. 8, 2014