I think it was Echo (he of the Bunnymen) that stated, quite without irony, that people are strange. And there are few better cinematic examples this year of how flawed we all are than the screwed up characters featured in Michael Dowse’s ‘What If”.
Adapted from the stage play ‘Toothpaste & Cigars’, by T J Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, Elan Mastai adapts this into a screenplay actually worth paying attention to. More than your average rom-com? Well, yes and a bit no. The no portion does little to astound the audience, anymore than it creates any kind of new or original ideas.
Romantic comedies tend to work for at least two reason. Firstly, they’re funny and secondly, you can engage with the characters suffering the trials of love that are thrust upon them. Whether you’re able to connect with everyone here will largely depend on your perspective, but Dowse’s ideal Torontonians (yes, I looked it up) are beautiful, whimsical, intelligent, creative types that are passionate about just everything and yet still remain gregarious, flighty, hip and drenched in a youthful, bohemian chic that will make anyone over thirty feel a bit old.
Us Brits, on the other hand, represented solely here by Daniel Radcliffe (who has now apparently got tired of waiting for Hugh Grant to die), are perceived as being, well, a bit awkward, overly polite and prone to hasty, uncomfortable, ill-judged attempts at romance.
Finally extricating himself of his self-loathing long enough to make it out of his apartment after his last failed attempt at a relationship, Wallace (Radcliffe) agrees to go to a party, invited by long-time friend Allan (Adam Driver) with the not immediately obvious intention of finding Wallace someone to relate to more than anything else. It is here that he meets Chantry (Kazan), a pretty, intelligent and witty equal, it seems. The magic is there immediately for all to see, but there is a problem for Wallace at least, in that Chantry has a boyfriend (Rafe Spall) of some long-standing and is looking for a friend rather than anything romantic.
Wallace is completely smitten, of course, as we Brits tend to be when, in a strange land, we are presented to a pretty young thing that actually understands us and yet still doesn’t run for the hills immediately, but instead bats her impossibly long eyelashes at us, innocently and quite without being aware, somehow promising redemption and a perfect future that will last forever.
But the path of true love never runs smooth, something we can all testify to, after all, and on Wallace’s part, this blossoming pseudo-friendship begins to encompass the greater portion of his life, despite Chantry’s clear line in the sand regarding what kind of relationship she wants and will allow with him. Wallace attempts to be as nonchalant as possible about the whole situation, but he really isn’t fooling anyone in the audience and maybe just the one person on screen that matters most.
The story is probably a little too close to When Harry Met Sally (note; that was twenty-five years ago!) for comfort and that subject matter (can a man and a woman really be just friends?) has been approached on film astoundingly well already by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner. Dowse’s attempts to fill those intimidating shoes is an admirable one, if not altogether as emotionally satisfying or narratively accomplished.
The performances are impressive certainly, with Kazan probably the biggest draw for the indie-hounds, propped up by Radcliffe who will no doubt be the reason that this makes its costs back, if indeed it does. Kazan’s Chantry is kooky enough to appear a little extrovert, but she still retains a personable air that makes her both approachable and engaging for mass appeal, which could not be said of all of her chosen projects to date. Radcliffe is the typical Englishman abroad, well-intentioned, confused and emotionally hopeless, but still in possession of a genuinely good heart that he is just dying to give to someone to take care of.
Supported most notably by Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis (probably the most beautifully tall creature since Julia Roberts) they are the immensely happy and annoyingly cloying friends, advisors and confidantes to both of our leads as the couple that meet, fall in love, get engaged, married and pregnant all in the space of the movie that sees the leads flounder in their own love lives.
In summary, What If is a very inoffensive look at the pitfalls of falling in love with one of your friends and the effect that this can have on your circle of other friends and family. The writing is accomplished and the performances are all on par or above. This fails to qualify as truly original and does tread some very well worn ground, but nevertheless, cinematically it is very appealing and Dowse’s vision of Toronto and its natives are continually watchable. Radcliffe continues to impress away from that franchise, but still appears a little shy of becoming a true leading man, certainly in this genre, at least.