D: Michael Dowse / 98m
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall
Following a difficult break-up, Wallace (Radcliffe) wants nothing to do with love. He no longer believes in it, and is in no hurry to hook up with someone new. At a party held by his best friend Alan (Driver) however, he meets Chantry (Kazan), Alan’s cousin. They hit it off, and he walks her home; at this point she reveals she has a boyfriend. Even so, Chantry gives Wallace her number but feeling that nothing good can come of their new association he doesn’t keep it. Sometime later they bump into each other outside a cinema they’ve just been to, and they pick up from where they left off. This time, when they reach Chantry’s home, she asks if they can be friends, to which Wallace agrees.
Their relationship grows as they spend more time together. Chantry invites Wallace to meet her boyfriend, Ben (Spall), and her sister, Dalia (Park). Ben warns Wallace off, while Dalia finds him attractive. An accident leaves Ben in the hospital overnight, and leads to his revealing why he’s so anti-love: his parents were doctors who cheated on each other until they divorced, and while he was a med student his girlfriend (also a med student) cheated on him with another doctor. Now he’s determined not to behave like his parents did.
Ben takes advantage of a job opportunity and moves to Dublin for six months, though he and Chantry commit to keeping their relationship going despite the distance between them. Alan and his girlfriend, Nicole (Davis) realise that Wallace is falling for Chantry, and even though he denies it, they keep pushing him to tell her how he feels about her, even on the day they get married. A disastrous night left naked and stranded at the beach by Alan and Nicole with just a sleeping bag to keep them warm, leads to an estrangement between Wallace and Chantry that neither knows how to fix. Confused about her feelings for Wallace she flies to Dublin and discovers that Ben has been offered a further job in Rio de Janeiro for another six months.
Alan tries once again to get Wallace to come clean to Chantry. Goaded to the point where he feels he has to come clean about his feelings for her, he follows Chantry to Dublin but receives a voicemail message when he gets there from Chantry that tells him she’s returned home and can he meet her. He rushes back and still feeling it’s best that he tells her how she feels, he tells her about his trip to Dublin and how much she means to him. Angry that he went to break up her relationship with Ben – something he’d promised he would never do – Chantry dismisses his claims that she has similar feelings for him, and they part. She accepts a promotion that means her moving to Taiwan. Realising that she’s not handled things too well, Chantry clings to the hope that Wallace will attend her leaving party, and they will have one last chance to make amends to each other.
Romantic comedies, these days at least, come in two forms: the kind that falls back on gross-out humour to provide something memorable, and the kind that makes an effort to create memorable characters so that the humour flows organically from the actual set up. What If is definitely in the latter category, a rom-com that pitches two of the most appealing, agreeable characters that we’ve seen for a long while, and develops their relationship with patience and a surprising degree of skill.
Adapted from the play Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, What If scores highly by virtue of the script by Elan Mastai – coming a very long way from his debut script for MVP: Most Vertical Primate (2001) – and the inspired pairing of Radcliffe and Kazan. As the couple living in mutual denial of their feelings for each other, both actors excel, raising the movie’s standard plotting and set up into something much more worthwhile and affecting. (This isn’t to say that Mastai’s screenplay is lacking in any way, it’s just that it does follow the basic formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-keeps-his-feelings-to-himself-for-too-long, boy-finally-reveals-feelings-but-girl-feels-betrayed, boy-and-girl-may-or-may-not-be-reconciled that holds up most romantic comedies.)
Kazan and Radcliffe are both on terrific form, creating a convincing, captivating couple that makes it easier to root for them both through their personal and united travails. Kazan is a remarkably intuitive actress, able to adequately demonstrate the pain and confusion of unexpected love with an intensity that’s not often called for in a rom-com, but it all leads to a well-rounded, vivid characterisation and performance that elevates the material. She’s a beguiling actress, her unconventional looks and line readings adding to the believability of both Chantry as a character and her reactions to the developments in her relationship with Wallace. There are numerous moments where she reveals both the strength and the insecurity inherent in Chantry’s personality, and each moment is rendered beautifully.
Matching Kazan for believability and commitment is Radcliffe, demonstrating once again that he is one of the most talented actors of his generation. As the conflicted, honourably-minded Wallace, Radcliffe nails yet another role where he’s required (or so it seems) to be the engine that drives the movie on. Here he expertly dissects Wallace’s character and shows us the torment of a man whose experience of love has been so cruelly undermined by the people most important to him, and before he’s really had a chance to participate in it properly. It’s a measured, perceptive performance, full of insight and wit, and it complements Kazan’s role perfectly.
The secondary characters are well-drawn even if they’re unsurprisingly not as alluring or interesting as Chantry and Wallace are, but the supporting cast have fun with them nevertheless. Driver and Davis are a great match as the overly physical Alan and Nicole, their free-spiritedness at odds with the more closed in, hesitant natures of Chantry and Wallace, while Park is daffily amusing as Chantry’s predatory sister. And in the often thankless role of partner-who-must-be-shown-the-door, Spall makes Ben more interesting (and sympathetic) than the viewer might expect.
With a great script and great performances, the romantic aspects are handled with a great deal of delicacy and skill – the scene where Wallace helps Chantry out of a dress she’s trying on but has got stuck in is a superb case in point; the longing both characters display for each other is unexpectedly moving and outstandingly played. In the director’s chair, Dowse orchestrates things with poise and sensitivity, and shows an innate understanding of the characters and the material. He also knows when to let the camera linger on his leads, and when to go for the “killer” close up. It all adds up to a movie that’s not afraid to look good while pointing up the intimacy of the feelings on display. And there’s a wonderfully appropriate indie-style score by A.C. Newman that enhances and embellishes the action with casual aplomb.
Rating: 8/10 – funny, sad, heartwarming, quirky and absorbing, What If is a cleverly constructed, endlessly entertaining rom-com with two hugely impressive central performances; the perfect movie for singles looking for reassurance that love is just around the corner, or couples who want to rediscover that first thrill of finding someone special.