Radcliffe, Kazan Charm In Likable Rom-Com

Romantic comedies have long been in a creative rut, occasionally resuscitated by inspired ditties like “(500) Days Of Summer” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” but mostly drowning in formula. “What If” is here to boldly stand up for that formula, and it makes a compelling case that it’s not necessarily a lack of originality that’s holding back the genre, but failure in execution. It’s a picture with close to zero new ideas, but it gets the old ideas so right that no one is likely to care. And – surprise! – it’s funny and romantic.

Crucially, the spark between its two leads – Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) and Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”) – ignites instantly and burns brightly for the film’s entirety. Radcliffe plays Wallace, a Briton living in Toronto, a recent medical school dropout in a typical twenty-something haze of aimlessness. Kazan plays Chantry, an animator who lives with her possessive boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall). She’s at a similarly adrift point in her life, dedicated to no one and nothing in particular, but smart, passionate, and vivacious all the same.

The two meet and form an instant friendship, the two actors expertly, wordlessly relaying the notion that these two characters belong together. They can’t be together, of course, but director Michael Dowse conducts substantial electricity each time Wallace and Chantry share the screen, reliably guiding the simple story where it needs to go. That the screenplay is so thin on story yet so full of life is a testament to the talents of Dowse, the writers, and his cast.

Adam Driver (HBO’s “Girls”) is on hand as Allan, Wallace’s confidant, and adeptly blends comic relief and moral support without falling into the typical caricature of a best friend. His own romantic arc, with the excellent Mackenzie Davis (“That Awkward Moment”), is satisfying in its own right, serving as a clever foil to Wallace’s continued romantic failures. Driver shows more range here than ever before, suggesting that his recent anointment as Hollywood’s “next big thing” wasn’t premature.

The bulk of the story acts as a treatise on Billy Crystal’s “When Harry Met Sally” assertion that “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way,” moving Wallace and Chantry around like chess pieces in a game destined for a bad ending. As expected, Wallace fumbles his way through the relationship without relaying his true feelings while Chantry repeatedly pulls closer to Ben. It’s a comfortable, natural, if passionless fit that should relate to anyone who’s ever been afraid of making a bold move in relationship – or afraid of being alone.

Dowse and company attempt to accent the ordinary narrative with brief animated flights of fancy – a la “(500) Days Of Summer” – but they feel superfluous, like a misguided attempt to bet-hedge on the efficacy of the cast. Thankfully, the actors uniformly deliver, turning an overly tidy ending into something that feels real, that feels earned. It’s harder than it looks to make an openly derivative premise feel lived-in, but “What If” does it, effortlessly at times.

The screenplay’s razor-sharp dialogue doesn’t ring as true as its characters, but when it hits, it hits hard. There are a handful of big laughs to be had – most courtesy of Driver – and the heightened level of discourse is necessary to keep things moving. Only the gap in introspection between sexes – Wallace talks at length about his feelings, Chantry mostly keeps hers bottled up – disappoints.

Curiously, the film has been edited down from an R rating to a PG-13 – as evidenced by some awkward sound editing – clipping the film of some of its bite. But the chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan alone is enough to warrant admission price, making “What If” a no-brainer of a date movie – and essential viewing for all rom-com fans.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 8, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Elan Mastai
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Oona Chaplin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including references throughout, partial nudity and language)