The underlying sweetness of director Michael Dowse’s 2011 hockey comedy “Goon” was a mere warm-up act for the full-on charm offensive of “What If.” Had it centered around a less naturally engaging duo than Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, this cheekily contrived romantic comedy might have outworn its welcome with its tale of two twentysomething friends taking forever to acknowledge their true feelings for one another. Fortunately, their endless dithering is made not just tolerable but ingratiating thanks to sparkling performances and a level of wit, whimsy and self-conscious genre riffery that never gets in the way of emotional sincerity. Snapped up by CBS Films following its Toronto world premiere, this eminently commercial Canadian-Irish co-production should see decent returns from date-night crowds, with plenty of ancillary appeal.
“I just want us to be friends.” Dreadful words for any guy to hear in a movie like this, especially so in the case of affable Toronto medical-school dropout Wallace (Radcliffe), who’s still nursing a broken heart when he meets animator/artist Chantry (Kazan) at a party one evening. Wallace is almost immediately smitten, making it all the more disappointing when Chantry reveals at the end of the night that she has a boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), a smart, handsome aspiring diplomat whom she’s been dating for five years. They’re clearly serious, and yet, as she spends more and more time hanging out with Wallace — attending a revival screening of “The Princess Bride,” or noshing on various deep-fried foodstuffs — Chantry finds that she connects with her new friend on a quirky conversational level distinct from any of her other relationships.
Adapted and significantly expanded from T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s theatrical two-hander “Toothpaste and Cigars,” Elan Mastai’s screenplay seems to have been reconceived as an unabashed tribute to “When Harry Met Sally,” with its overarching big question of whether a man and a woman can truly just be friends. Complicating matters further here is the much-debated idea that a romance cannot end well if it takes root while one of the parties is technically unavailable — a karmic notion refuted to some extent by Wallace’s crazy best friend, Allan (Adam Driver), whose passionate, committed relationship with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) had what they call a “dirty” beginning.
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And so Wallace, his puppy-dog yearning held in check by nice-guy restraint (an effortless combo in Radcliffe’s hands), attempts the impossible task of spending as much time as possible with Chantry without letting his feelings get in the way. But the lines get blurrier once Ben moves to Dublin to work for the United Nations, leaving Chantry to try and sustain a long-distance commitment with someone who, unlike Wallace, is neither geographically nor emotionally present. Further complications ensue when Chantry half-heartedly sets Wallace up with her sister, Dalia (Megan Park), a plan that merely pushes the two determined just-friends further into each other’s arms — or, barring that, into the same sleeping bag on a freezing-cold night at the beach.
Roughly three parts charming to one part cloying, “What If” attempts and largely succeeds at pulling off a smart, self-aware riff on romantic-comedy conventions while maintaining a core of earnest feeling. There are careful attempts to sidestep or at least tweak the genre’s usual cliches: The climactic rush to the airport gets an interesting variation here, and Ben, as Wallace’s rival for Chantry’s affections, isn’t a complete jackass so much as a well-meaning, mildly self-absorbed careerist — still enough of a douchebag, of course, that it’s not exactly a tragedy when he takes a non-fatal tumble out of an upper-story window.
The actors keep it all feeling reasonably fresh and funny, with Radcliffe and Kazan properly winsome as the couple-to-be, though the film’s secret weapon, and the standout of a strong supporting cast, is Driver. Having a breakout year with roles in “Tracks,” “Bluebird” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (that’s him singing “Please Please Mr. Kennedy” with Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake), the actor is hugely likable as Wallace’s boisterous best bud, getting the film’s single biggest laugh when he sums up one of life’s perfect moments: “I just had sex and I’m about to eat nachos!”
A few scenes involving Wallace’s sister (Jemima Rooper) and some sort of disgusting peanut-butter-jelly-and-bacon snack feel sufficiently shoehorned in that they could have been dropped entirely, to the benefit of the film’s somewhat puffy 102-minute running time. Musical and visual accompaniment, respectively, are provided by a busy soft-rock soundtrack and Chantry’s colorful animated doodles, which recur throughout the film and are given free rein in the elaborate end-credits sequence. It’s precisely the sort of flourish that, like much of “What If,” borders on twee before winning you over.
(Editor’s note: This film was reviewed from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival under its original title, “The F Word,” which was changed to “What If” for reasons only the MPAA could explain or understand.)