What If is When Harry Met Sally… for the current generation. I guess you could call it When Harry Potter Met Zoe Kazan…. Has anyone used that yet? No? Good, then I’m stealing it.
That’s not entirely fair, though, because What If (once known as The F Word on the film-festival circuit) is additional proof that Daniel Radcliffe will enjoy an illustrious acting career outside the walls of Hogwarts, so long as he continues to seek out and accept endearing projects such as this. The “F” from The F Word is “friendship,” which is what Chantry (Kazan) seeks after meeting Wallace (Radcliffe) at a party. Their “meet cute” involves refrigerator magnets that can be manipulated into funny sentences. The duo hit it off immediately, spend the evening gently flirting over common interests, and walk home as the sun begins to rise. That’s when Chantry reveals that she has a steady boyfriend.
Can these two just be friends?
The Harry Met Sally… comparison connects more thoroughly to Nora Ephron’s in-tune dialogue between the sexes. The dialogue-driven What If adapts a dry, sarcastic stage play named Toothpaste & Cigars, penned by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. The conversations are acute and familiar, probing but comfortably recognizable. You either have been in similar situations to the ones facing Wallace and Chantry, or you sat on the other end of a phone listening to a close friend spell out these very same troubles. You probably didn’t have an easy resolution to your struggling friend, and What If can’t find an honest ending either – settling for a tidy and rushed conclusion that needs a bow to complete the illusion.
But the trip – rocky as it seems – is always adorable and sweet because Radcliffe and Kazan are a delightfully ordinary pair. I mean that in the nicest way possible. This isn’t Bradley Cooper wondering why Brooklyn Decker won’t dump her steady boyfriend (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and tumble into his waiting embrace. Again, it’s a lot closer to nebbish Billy Crystal and high-haired Meg Ryan. That comparison, once again. But these are “regular” movie stars portraying everyday people kicking around universal relationship problems. With all due respect, Kazan isn’t a swimsuit model, and Radcliffe’s hardly the masculine brute from the cover of the Harlequin romance novels. And that works for the tone of director Michael Dowse wants to establish. Awkward. Sensitive. But above all else, real.
Where does What If stumble? The over-reliance on cutesy pop-culture references can get in the way of honest conversation, forcing the two to surprisingly interact at a screening of The Princess Bride (because that’s a hip reference right?). And the language tries a little too hard to shoehorn trendy new terms like “fish hooking” and “sex nachos” into our lexicon. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen, What If. In fact, it was during a repetitive bit where Chantry explains how Cool Whip got it’s name, that I realized exactly what What If is. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the dessert topping. It’s light. It’s fluffy. It’s overly sweet. But when it tries to be anything heavier than what it realistically is, it falls apart. Just be happy being Cool Whip, What If. We’ll always have a taste for that.