REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
You might be scratching your head wondering where the romantic comedy, “What If” materialized from. After all, the film stars Daniel Radcliffe, the lead in the “Harry Potter” franchise. However, it arrives with virtually no advance fanfare.
Much of film’s branding difficulties arise from the change in its original title. When the film had its world premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, it played under the name, “The F Word.” The putative F word in question referred to “friend,” as in friend zone. You know-the purgatory for platonic relationships, in which at least one party craves sexual congress. The bizarrely prudish Motion Picture Association of America objected to the double entendre of the film’s title. To mollify the censorious organization, CBS Studios changed the title to “What If” for distribution within the United States. However, in Canadian theaters, the film will retain its original title. So, you have the same film being released in two contiguous, Anglophonic countries under two different titles.
With its romantic subject matter, the film was originally projected to be a Valentine’s Day release. However, it was subsequently bumped back to August. After a contentious dispute with the MPAA, the film now finally arrives in theaters with its revised title and a bit of a thud. It turns out that the drama with the MPAA eclipsed the film’s formulaic narrative content.
The film’s back story involves Wallace (Radcliffe), who was dumped by his girlfriend. Emotionally devastated, he dropped out of medical school and remained cooped up in his Toronto apartment for months.
Allan (Adam Driver) insists that Wallace attend a party that he is throwing. There, the film stages a meet cute between Wallace and Allan’s cousin, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who is an animator/artist. The two engage in some feeble wordplay, using refrigerator magnets. Now smitten with Chantry, Wallace is magically elevated out of his state of clinical depression. This vignette is a portent of the film’s compendium of far-fetched contrivances and implausibilities.
Of course, the film offers a predictable impediment. Chantry lives with her long-term boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall). He is a big shot attorney, who is involved with international law. Chantry is a quirky, artsy type, yet she is hooked up with some sanctimonious, stuffed shirt of a globetrotting careerist. They hardly seem to have the makings of compatible couple. Obfuscating his true feelings, Wallace broaches the notion of having a platonic relationship with Chantry and she enthusiastically agrees.
Chantry is presented as a variation on the manic pixie fantasy girl prototype. However, this pixie is totally oblivious to her true feelings for Wallace or the mixed signals that she is giving him. Then, Ben moves to Ireland for a protracted six-month assignment with the United Nations. Wallace and Chantry begin spending more and more time together. Although they share an undeniable emotional intimacy, the two are resolutely determined to remain in the friend zone.
Meanwhile, Allan kicks off a lust-driven fling with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis). It blossoms into a substantive, emotionally fulfilling relationship for them. This constitutes a studied contrast to the inert, unconsummated relationship between Wallace and Chantry. It also makes you wonder why the film insists on focusing on the boringly chaste, phlegmatic dynamic between Wallace and Chantry with all their assiduously sublimated desires. The trajectory of the affair between Allan and Nicole is vastly more interesting.
In a stroke of incredibly poor judgment, Chantry sets Wallace up on a date with a proxy, her sex-starved sister, Dalia (Megan Park). The outcome is an unmitigated disaster. What was Chantry thinking?
One night, Chantry proposes that Wallace join her on a skinny dip in Lake Ontario. Is this a clear signal that she wants to finally redefine their relationship or what? They emerge only to find that their clothes have been stolen. So they spend the night together, huddled in a single sleeping bag. Is this naked encounter enough to ignite a tryst between the two? Alternately stated, is Wallace a man or a pathetically insecure eunuch?
“What If” is expanded from “Toothpaste and Cigars,” a stageplay by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. Elan Mastai’s adaptation has ripped off “When Harry Met Sally.” Can men and women sustain a platonic relationship? Only here, unlike the earlier treatment of the theme, the co-protagonists lack any scintilla of sexual appetite, self-awareness, or willingness to risk rejection.
The biggest disappointment here is that Michael Dowse has directed this lackluster vehicle. Previously, he had helmed the 2011 film, “Goon” with Seann William Scott (Stifler from the “American Pie” trilogy) as a pugilistically inclined hockey player. Dowse’s earlier film suggested a promise that is certainly unfulfilled here. “What If” represents a major step backwards for him.
As further evidence of the film’s misguided ethos, it posits that the best way to gauge the compatibility of two people is whether they share a fetishistic affinity for a certain delectation that bears the appellation, “Fool’s Gold.” This foodstuff consists of a loaf of Italian bread, slathered with butter, with it insides scooped out, then stuffed with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a rasher of bacon. Does that delectation sound erotically charged to you? To me, the mere thought of consuming such an item seems like a potent anti-aphrodisiac. Is there some metaphor here that I am missing?
Despite the lascivious suggestion implicit in one interpretation of its original title, “What If” is a disconcertingly twee, edgeless film.
** PG-13 (for sexual content, including references throughout, partial nudity and language) 102 minutes
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.