Charm trumps cliche in ‘What If’ 

click to enlarge Sparks fly between Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan) in "What If." - MCT
  • MCT
  • Sparks fly between Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan) in "What If."
Boy meets girl, but girl already has boyfriend, in “What If,” a comedy exploring the over-asked question of whether a man and a woman who share obvious romantic chemistry can truly be happy if they remain just friends. We know how this movie will answer that — it’s a rom-com. But the engaging lead performances and wit between the lines make the movie’s winning parts outweigh the contrived parts.

Directed by Michael Dowse (“Goon”) and written by Elan Mastai (expanding on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi), this Canadian production suggests a mix of “When Harry Met Sally” and “Lost in Translation,” sprinkled with cell-phone pillow talk and indie eccentricity.

In Toronto, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a medical-school dropout, clicks with Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an open-faced young animator, in a meet-cute party scene. The two walk and talk and agree to start hanging out together. Then Chantry reveals she has a serious boyfriend.

A decent sort, Wallace chooses the upright path: a just-friends relationship with Chantry. He accepts her invitation to dine with her and her beau, Ben (Rafe Spall), who’s a basically good guy despite an aggressive streak.

When Ben is away on extended business, Chantry and Wallace bond endearingly and meaningfully as friends. They discuss “The Princess Bride” and eat fried pickles. They extend their platonic dates with long phone conversations from their respective beds.

While their mutual physical attraction is obvious to others, including friends Allan (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) and Chantry’s flirty sister, Dalia (Megan Park), the pair deny such feelings.

It isn’t until Chantry has flown to Ireland to visit Ben that Wallace takes action. Things don’t go as planned. Will his handling of the situation turn Chantry against him forever?

The genre formula proves as tired as ever. Variations on the trying-on-dresses and mad-dash-to-the-airport are about as original as the movie gets. There also are tonal and credibility problems. Broad physical humor clashes with the wittier banter. Some events, such as Wallace accidentally knocking Ben out a window, defy credibility.

Yet the charm eclipses the cliches. The movie is often an amusing comedy about the preciousness of friendship, the boundaries and crossover potential of platonic partnerships, and thorny issues that arise when conscience battles heart.

Radcliffe, displaying the impressive earnestness he’s brought to characters as different as the young Allen Ginsberg and a certain boy wizard, and Kazan, never letting her quirk appeal upstage her character’s essential desires and goodness, provide essential spark.

Driver, as Wallace’s caddish buddy, gives the funniest performance. Best line: “I just had sex, and I’m about to eat nachos!”


What If

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall

Written by Elan Mastai

Directed by Michael Dowse

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes

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Anita Katz

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