19 August 2014

WHAT IF- Review

Daniel Radcliffe still has a bit of hard work ahead shaking off his Harry Potter rep, just by dint of having so comprehensively tied himself to Harry Potter over the course of a decade of his life. Happily, he does seem to be putting the work in. The Woman In Black, with its candlelit roaming of corridors after nightfall, might not have been the best vehicle for that, but perhaps hip new romantic comedy What If is better.

In the film, he plays Wallace, a young romantic who puts on the impression of embittered, cynical singledom after being repeatedly wounded by long-term girlfriends past. Moping around at a house party, he bumps into graphic designer Chantry, with whom he markedly does not hit it off. After a couple more chance encounters, they become not-so-fast friends, even if Wallace feels disingenuous about hiding his feelings when Chantry has a long-term engagement with her diplomat boyfriend Ben. That's right folks, it's another film asking if men and women can be best friends, or if the possibility of sex just gets in the way.

Romantic comedies set in New York City are ten a penny, to the point where the upcoming David Wain spoof They Came Together lampoons that whole sub-genre. It can easily be traced back to the reigning champion of all romcoms, When Harry Met Sally, which has also given way to a number of these "does sex stop men and women being friends?" films. What If briefly skirts the issue by actually holding another Rob Reiner classic, The Princess Bride, as a romantic paragon, before sharply explaining why love doesn't work as well in real life.

In market terms, the actual paragon for the current generation is (500) Days of Summer, from which this cribs some of its edgier and more cynical outlooks, with more emphasis on how the kind of behaviour that passes for "romantic" in this kind of film, would actually be much creepier if you really did it. The problem with the film is that it thinks pointing out these tropes is the same as earning the audience's approval to lapse into them as it goes on. In short, it's still a film.

It all comes down to a certain something that's lacking between the leads, who are individually great but less likeable as a couple. Radcliffe still has an aptitude for comedy and he capably carries the expectations of a Billy Crystal/Woody Allen style romantic lead on his shoulders. I'm not sure how he hasn't been cast in a stoner comedy after the whole Felix Felicis passage of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but them's the breaks. Elsewhere, Zoe Kazan, who was so deliberately and subversively quirky in Ruby Sparks, retools that same whimsy as Chantry and makes for a likeable foil to Wallace's cynicism.

The downfall, as is so often the case in these films, comes from setting up boyfriend Ben, played by Rafe Spall, as such a reasonable guy. In hitting and then subverting the beats where lesser-denoted films might have set him up as a liar or a cheater or someone who just doesn't get Chantry, we're left with a guy who reacts entirely normally to unfolding events, but just isn't quite hip enough in the final summary. The heart wants what it wants and all of that, but apparently the alternative to making the boyfriend a monster right before the third act is to make him the most reasonable and yet mistreated character in the film.

Despite a weird over-reliance on more scatological gags, the film's saving grace may well be its sense of humour. Wallace's dickhead best friend Alan, played by rising star Adam Driver, single-handedly keeps the comic energy up in between the more romantic scenes, in his accelerated relationship with Mackenzie Davis as his girlfriend Nicole. He also has more chemistry with Radcliffe, providing a reluctant shoulder to cry on and a forum for Wallace's anxieties about whether Bruce Willis would ever be happy with being "just friends" with someone.

What If gets a lot of things right- the leads are likeable, it has a good sense of humour and a genre-savvyness that keeps it well above the usual dreck that comes from the same place. But it gets just as many things wrong- Radcliffe and Kazan just aren't that likeable together, there's about five-too-many totally random poo jokes and for all of its lampshading, it still dovetails into predictability. The result is easy to like but tough to love, no matter how much you might want to, even if it's still a cut above other friendy-sexy New York-set romcoms.

What If is showing in cinemas nationwide from Wednesday.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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