'What If' a Pleasing, Modern Rom-Com Look At Friend Zone

Directed by: Michael Dowse; Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: B-

Regardless of the clockwork nature of the genre's output and devotion to formula, one of the redeemable things about romantic dramedies can be found in how each one makes observations on the ways relationships change with time, whether it's by intent or simply in the DNA of the script's setting. They all fit together into a continuing jigsaw puzzle, even the weaker ones, revealing hints of progression in gender dynamics and the abandonment (and perseverance) of stereotypes; some, naturally, are more successful at this than others. What If doesn't have that many innovative traits in its take on the underdog rom-com, relying instead on kitschy dialogue that frequently comes across as parading its eccentricity. That said, its valiant depiction of the playful banter, modern professional life, and the line between kinship and chemistry snaps together into a spry, satisfying piece of the puzzle about "the friend zone", driven by a convincing performance from Daniel Radcliffe as a despondent idealist.

After his life spiraled out of control, losing his girlfriend and his career ambitions, Wallace (Radcliffe) essentially escaped from the world for a year. The initial scene in What If marks his cathartic jump back into a social life, commemorating the occasion by hopping into a party thrown by his friend, Allen (Adam Driver), to which he makes a connection with a smart, reserved animator, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), also his friend's cousin. On their walk home, Chantry reveals that she already has a boyfriend, a successful (and therefore busy) international lawyer. Despite that, the pair land on the idea of building a friendship instead of going their separate ways, leading to a platonic relationship that drudges up the expected inquiries among their friends about what they mean to one another. As life complicates around them, from work opportunities to the prospect of dealing with a long-distance relationship, Wallace and Chantry struggle with figuring out exactly what their feelings towards one another entails as well.

With a few adjustments, What If could easily be confused for an update to When Harry Met Sally, hinged on the eternal question of whether members of the opposite sex can be friends if they have chemistry and are open about their romantic lives. Things have changed since the '80s, of course, notably in the open rapport between the sexes and the comfort level of men and women contently existing in the friend zone, so there's a worthwhile reason for screenwriter Elan Mastai to rework those ideas through T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi's play, "Toothpaste and Cigars". Wallace and Chantry's relationship builds around idiosyncratic banter about odd sandwiches, vocab magnets, and excrement humor that tries a bit too hard to be quirky and modern, yet there's earnestness in their humble beginnings that's admirably low-key, balanced with a real-world perspective on their lives outside of the friendship. It's the main attraction, but Wallace and Chantry are also interesting in their individual spheres, especially Chantry's struggle with independence and professional advancement.

Wallace is largely the focal point in What If, since most of what happens does so through his point of view: his romantic pessimism, his decision to pursue a friendship with a taken woman, and his evolving chemistry with her. It's a straightforward role, but Daniel Radcliffe enriches his pangs of despondence and deepening infatuation for Chantry with an endearing hang-dog disposition, the Harry Potter actor's soulful eyes and innate reservation fitting well with Wallace's forlorn confusion over how to handle the situation. Zoe Kazan offers a singular object for his confused affection as Chantry, a unique blend of meekness and confidence through the eyes of an artist. Their imperfect chemistry works with the crossed wires and ambiguity of a pseudo-relationship, the nebulous of non-dates and tiptoeing around Chantry's fiancee, but things get a little patchy once the film's conversation turns towards a fated romantic kinship. Their destination might be the main attraction, but Wallace and Chantry are arguably more interesting as awkward will-they-won't-they individuals, especially considering Chantry's independence and job prospects.

That's one of What If's more impressive traits: the handling of elements outside of Wallace and Chantry's relationship and within their individual spaces, the things that restrain their leaps into romantic endeavors. Despite the intentionally exaggerated full-throttle romance between Allen (Adam Driver in charismatically zany fashion) and his new-flame Nicole that's designed to juxtapose Wallace and Chantry's lack of passion, the story represents sincere real-world complications and considerations, especially in the appearance of Chantry's beau, Ben. It'd be easy to make Wallace's "competition" out to be someone worth leaving; however, aside from a few overt (and unsuccessful) plays on humor, the story does almost nothing to vilify Ben beyond giving him healthy ambition. It'd also be easier to make Wallace into someone plainly desirable, yet the story actively points out his unattractive traits and his inadequacy as a "role model" for his single-mom sister's child. The film attempts to make a distinction between what's sensibly desirable and what feels right, and it succeeds more often than it falters.

As What If plays out, however, there's little denying that it falls into a safe and unsurprising rom-com formula, with halfhearted stabs at both humor and romantic crescendos bouncing between Wallace and Chantry's conundrum. Despite sprinkling it with whimsical animated touches and snappy dialogue (though not as overtly quirky as 500 Days of Summer or other indies), director Michael Dowse ultimately cannot conceal this been-there, done-that safeness of its plotting later on, with the drama hitting expected high notes -- a party, an embarrassed forced-romance scenario, a crazy gesture of affection -- in unadventurous fashion. Granted, those familiar ideas occur in ways that still feel genuine and aware of the talent involved enough to bring Wallace and Chantry's could-be potential full circle, culminating in above-par execution that's worth watching for the actors' embodiment of conventional characters with a modern edge. Could've been more, but it fills the 2014 rom-com gap with more maturity than expected.

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