What if you meet the right person at the wrong time? That is the question at the heart of What If, the smart, snappy new rom-com from Goon director Michael Dowse that sees Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan’s hipster twentysomethings hit it off at a party, with only one thing standing in the way of a romantic relationship: her boyfriend.
Radcliffe plays Wallace, a med-school dropout still reeling from a messy break-up with his ex (Sarah Gadon). He meets Kazan’s Chantry at a party thrown by his best friend Allan (Adam Driver) and the two bond over fridge magnet poetry before walking home together. Wallace wants to call her but Chantry makes it clear that she has a boyfriend (Rafe Spall) and all they’ll ever be is friends.
But naturally Wallace wants more and maybe Chantry does too and What If isn’t a film that’s big on surprises, moving through a vast array of romcom tropes on the way to its inevitable destination. The quirky best friends, well-meaning but irritating love rival, spontaneous flights abroad and even the sexually charged skinny dipping session going wrong are all overly familiar and in lesser films might have felt played out, but the characters are relatable and realistic enough to make it work.
Romantic comedies, perhaps more than any other genre, are saddled with a fairly rigid formula and while What If doesn’t exactly break away from that, it does what a lot of romcoms fail to do and presents characters who feel like real people making real decisions. Maybe the Allan character and his love interest Nicole, played excellently by rising stars Driver and Mackenzie Davis respectively, are a little out there but the pairing at the centre of the film is so grounded and likeable that you really want to see these people get together, which is crucial to a film in this genre.
Part of that appeal comes from Radcliffe and Kazan who, individually and as a couple, are utterly charming. Thankfully there’s no attempt at an American accent from Radcliffe and he gives his most natural, easy going performance to date and Kazan’s quirky vulnerability is as adorable here as it was in her breakout role in Ruby Sparks. The chemistry they share with each other and the brilliant supporting cast – which also includes a quietly brilliant comedic turn from Megan Park as Chantry’s sister – lends the film a laidback appeal that makes it easy to spend time with these characters.
That said, there’s an unfortunate trend in the post-Apatow comedy world of trying to shoe-horn in profanity-strewn semi-improv into just about every film and there are times here that it feels forced and threatens to throw the film off balance. Some of the cast handle it better than others – Driver in particular can do that kind of rambling comedy in his sleep – but others, like Radcliffe, don’t and it doesn’t sit right. It’s disheartening as the snappy dialogue is generally good but the improvised riffing often falls flat.
Despite the occasional attempt to be something it isn’t, What If is an otherwise beguiling entry into the romcom cannon that makes something fresh out of old ingredients. The finale is never in doubt but Radcliffe and Kazan provide a couple to really root for in a film that’s light and breezy without being totally disposable.