Review: What If (2014)

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Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Elan Mastai
Based on “Toothpaste and Cigars”, a play by TJ Dawe & Michael Rinaldi
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall, Jemima Rooper & Lucius Hoyos
Runtime: 98 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A86JGbBEaBk]

I could begin this review with just one of the countless variations on the obvious “What If… this film wasn’t so shit?” pun that appears to be doing the rounds at the moment, but to even think one up would require an effort on my part that this film simply doesn’t warrant.

Loosely based on a stage play, What If is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending line of quirky, oh-so-honest rom-coms that try to riff off the same ideas as (500) Days of Summer (which, in turn, tried to riff off the same ideas as Annie Hall, and so on and so forth in a circular, self-defeating motion) by following two obnoxious, self-centred characters who become embroiled in the type of wacky, liberal, artistically-minded, middle-class relationship that only exists in movies and the minds of teenagers, yet for some reason is always portrayed as honest, realistic and kind-hearted.

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This version of the tired and tested formula sees Wallace (Radcliffe; Harry Potter), an Englishman living in Toronto, falling head over heels in love with his female best friend, Chantry (Kazan; Ruby Sparks), who – unfortunately for Wallace – is already in love with her boyfriend of five years, Ben (Spall; Prometheus). 98 minutes and a bunch of awkward exchanges later, can you guess how it’s all going to end? Of course you can, though that’s exactly the point. See, What If is just another of those increasingly irritating films that attempts to play on all the classic rom-com tropes with a nudge and a wink in a desperate bid to paper over the fact that its characters are hateful, its morals – or lack thereof – are obtuse and its plot is inauthentic, airy nonsense.

The problem with What If is that it wants to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, it wants to be seen as a honest portrayal of the perilous nature of relationships, and to suggest that people’s idealistic opposition to cheating and infidelity doesn’t hold water in the real World, yet at the same time it all feels terribly false and insular. Everything about it feels like it’s been written by a committee whose sole task was to appeal to the worst kind of idiosyncratic, “manic-pixie”-esque hipster. The characters’ jobs, their conversations – heck, even their names (Wallace and Chantry… come on now) – are utterly inauthentic, as is their ability to burn money without a care in the World and live in the lap of middle-class luxury when only one of them (Ben) actually seems to have anything even resembling a decent-paying job.

Furthermore, and most importantly, What If simply isn’t very funny. Radcliffe is relatively decent at the deadpan sarcasm / pessimism, but his constant moaning and whinging grows tiresome far too quickly, while Chantry strikes me as a genuinely awful individual who doesn’t deserve the affections of anyone, least of all an inept bloke who doesn’t know how to process heartbreak properly. Most of the jokes are witless, while both the romantic and the dramatic elements of the tale border on insufferable. For every half-decent gag (and there are a few, admittedly), you get ten minutes of pseudo-philosophical tripe in the vein of Woody Allen, albeit without any of the self-aware ridicule, and as such I stopped caring about any of the characters before the first act was down.

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If you enjoyed (500) Days of Summer or Kazan’s self-penned Ruby Sparks then you might like What If. If, however, you prefer your rom-coms with a bit more bite, realism and cynicism, this will likely do nothing but infuriate you as it did me. The directorial quirks are now pedestrian and lazy, the screenplay is riddled with lame jokes and mawkish platitudes towards “honest romance” and the performances are average at best.

The soundtrack is pretty good though so, y’know, maybe give that a listen if you’ve got a spare half-an-hour and just avoid the film…

½

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