What If is proof that, with a likable cast and a good grasp of tone, it’s possible to make a decent romantic comedy out of the genre’s most played-out clichés. The premise is nothing special—just two twentysomethings denying their attraction to one another for most of a slightly padded 102 minutes. The characters are stock types: Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is the short, witty sadsack who walks everywhere; Allan (Adam Driver) is his tall, Tony Roberts-esque best friend and conversational foil; Chantry (Zoe Kazan) is the office creative afraid of taking the big promotion; Ben (Rafe Spall) is her douchey, careerist boyfriend. There’s the requisite cutesiness: magnetic poetry, unnecessary animated sequences, multiple discussions of Elvis’ eating habits, a screening of The Princess Bride. (Perhaps When Harry Met Sally would have been too obvious.)
And, yet, it often works—not through some miracle, but because of the effort director Michael Dowse (Goon) and his cast have put into making the characters seem sweet and believably charming, and because the movie’s widescreen compositions mount a convincing, all-too-rare case for Toronto as a beautiful and romantic metropolis. Long Steadicam strolls along College Street and Queen Street West create the impression of a city of perpetual mid-evening, composed entirely of bike-through shop districts, packed with narrow glassy storefronts and unobtrusive awnings.
In other words, What If does what rom-coms are supposed to do, but rarely bother trying nowadays. That’s enough to make the movie seem, at first glance, like it’s more accomplished than it really is. It’s not as though the subject—friends who refuse to acknowledge their mutual attraction because of personal and social rules—can’t be handled with integrity; heck, it’s more or less the premise for In The Mood For Love, which began production as a romantic comedy. The problem is that doing so would probably preclude the kind of wedding-bells happy ending for which What If—unambitious to a fault—is priming its audience.
Elan Mastai’s script, which is based on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, follows a familiar route to a familiar conclusion. An initial romantic tension—a meet-cute between Wallace and Chantry at a party—dissipates into friendship, which is tested by further tension and continually counterposed with Allan’s increasing commitment to his girlfriend, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis, very good in an underwritten role). And though the movie isn’t doing—or trying to do—anything new, it at least has the benefit of Dowse’s direction, which stakes almost everything on the actors.
There are protracted scenes that depend on Radcliffe and Driver’s ability to portray best friends (which they do well), and long takes that wouldn’t work if Radcliffe and Kazan couldn’t make the growing relationship between their characters seem credible. Sure, Chantry’s often-absent boyfriend Ben is a one-dimensional bad guy, but Kazan manages to pick up some of the slack by making her character believably (but not gratingly) unassertive—the kind of person who wouldn’t get out of a bad relationship unless it was a matter of life and death. This approach isn’t radical by any means, but applied to such clichéd material, it can seem gutsy.