DVD Release Date: November 25, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: August 8, 2014 limited; wider throughout August
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, including references throughout, partial nudity and language
Run Time: 102 min.
Director: Michael Dowse
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Mackenzie Davis, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall
The arrival of What If, a romantic comedy starring Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), has me pondering cinematic clichés. A cliché, according to Merriam Websters Dictionary, is “something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc. that it is no longer effective.” But in the right hands, clichés can ring true and play well.
The genre that best exemplifies the triumph and risk of clichés is the romantic comedy. We know that the boy will meet the girl, then lose the girl, but, in the end, win the girl back somehow. It’s been that way for as long as romantic comedies have been made, yet audiences return to them again and again. They want more of the same. The predictability of the story arc is the very thing viewers expect and crave.
So what generally sets the better romantic comedies apart from the lesser ones is chemistry between the leads and sharp writing. Sure, the stylish Cary Grant is easy to enjoy as a romantic lead, but so is the more average-looking Billy Crystal when given the right on-screen romantic partner (e.g. Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally) and memorable, witty dialogue. The best romantic comedies create clichés of their own—usually through their dialogue ("You had me at ‘hello;"’ "I'll have what she’s having").
If either of those elements—chemistry or sparkling dialogue—are lacking, the results can be fatal. Witness What If, which has half of what's required for a good romantic comedy: chemistry, albeit rather muted, between its leads. While scenes with Radcliffe and Kazan have some spark, there’s not much heat to their romance, nor are the actors given anything to work with in the script. That splitting of differences leaves a lingering feeling of ambivalence toward the film.
The plot centers around Wallace (Radcliffe), a med-school dropout with a dead-end job who lives in his sister's attic. At night, he crawls onto the roof and ponders his life—a trait the film, directed by Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight) and adapted from a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, returns to, awkwardly, a couple of times.
Still grappling with his ex-girlfriend’s betrayal months earlier, Wallace meets Chantry (Kazan), an animator with whom he connects. The trouble? She's involved in a longtime relationship with Ben (Rafe Spall, Anonymous). Wallace submits to being just friends with Chantry, but when Ben goes to Ireland for several months and leaves his girlfriend behind in the States, Wallace and Chantry’s relationship threatens to go to another level.
Pushing to see progress in Wallace and Chantry’s relationship is Wallace's bawdy friend Allan (Adam Driver, Frances Ha), who sees Chantry as a suitable romantic partner for Wallace. Adam's freshly in love himself, and he and his new girlfriend, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment), scheme to bring Wallace and Chantry together in hopes the two will enter into the same type of passionate romance Adam and Nicole are sharing.
That's all predictable. What hurts the movie is that it never really catches fire. The spark between Wallace and Chantry is real, but their relationship merely simmers throughout the film. If they said anything deeply memorable, well... they didn't because I've forgotten. Instead, the movie's most memorable dialogue comes from Nicole. Her morals aren't the best, but she conveys her own misguided ideas about romance with a startling frankness.
Her forthrightness might make some viewers uncomfortable, but the outcome of What If somewhat offsets that concern. This is a film where marriage is a goal and is shown as a positive in the characters' lives. The film is also remarkable in that it doesn't show its two lead characters engage in premarital sex, even if we do see the characters in compromising positions and hear very frank discussion of sex from their friends. That lack of sex between the principal characters is astonishing in this day and age and, as with the recent Silver Linings Playbook (which also had no sex between its lead characters), sets What If apart from nearly every other modern romantic comedy. If only the What If script sparkled the way Silver Linings' does.
What If isn't hard to sit through, but there’s nothing special about it. If clichéd romantic comedies are your thing, you might enjoy what the film has to offer, even if you forget the movie before the day's over. But if you're looking for something that’s better than average, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; s-it; d-ck; "junk inside your trunk"; "screw them"; a reference to masturbation
- Drinking/Smoking: Characters talk about drinking heavily, then drown their sorrows; a woman lights multiple cigarettes; drunken stumbling; a woman says she doesn't want to hear a couple making love
- Sex/Nudity: Wallace remembers walking in on his girlfriend making out with another man; Ben asks Wallace if he’s sleeping with Chantry; frank mention of oral sex and gonorrhea, as well as talk of a threesome and female and male anatomy; a woman ponders sleeping with a cheating boyfriend’s male friends; Wallace helps Chantry remove a tight dress and sees her bra; skinny-dipping, with characters seen heavily shadowed at night; a woman starts unbuckling a man’s pants, but stops when the cab he's waiting for arrives outside; sexual talk on the phone; stories about sex; a woman says she needs a “buffer of sex”; discussions of trysts; a woman undresses to her underwear; a man and woman cover their nether regions with leaves; Wallace and Chantry sleep naked in a sleeping bag, but nothing happens; a discussion of married sex
- Violence/Crime: A babysitter and a young boy watch a horror movie; a man is accidentally knocked out of a window; a jokey discussion of corpses
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Wallace remembers that his parents cheated on each other and divorced each other when he was young; a character describes marriage as a “best-case scenario” for relationships; a character is said to have become “the antichrist”
Publication date: August 15, 2014