When Harry Potter met Sally
The Friend Zone is an emotional battlefield that forms the basis of many romantic comedies. But whilst a handful of recent films have explored the idea of trying to stay buddies between bouts in the bedroom, What If presents a fresh spin on the idea of being the right guy in the wrong relationship role.
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has become cynical about love, still nursing the scars of a turbulent break up, he heads to a party where he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) and they hit it off, a common sense of humour sparks easy patter between the two. As they leave the party, you sense that Wallace’s heart is thawing from its arctic slumber but as they stop outside Chantry’s house she declares “my boyfriend will be waiting for me”. As the uncertainty of crossed wires hang in the air, Chantry offers Wallace her number in a friend sense, which he takes but later discards, chalking up the evening as bad luck. Yet the romcoms favourite ally fate has other ideas and they meet again and bond over a love of The Princess Bride and preoccupations with Elvis’ intestines. Chantry offers Wallace her friendship which he accepts and respects, despite his hidden feelings. However when Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) takes a job out of the country, the friend zone becomes foggy and they wrestle with the possibility that your best friend might be the love of your life.
What If doesn’t, and doesn’t try to reinvent the romcom wheel but it does throw in a few artistic sidesteps to entertain even those who have an aversion to the genre. Daniel Radcliffe is smart casting as Wallace, the former boy wizard might not be the obvious choice for the romantic lead but this allows his reserved charm to shine through and builds upon the simmering friendship with Chantry. Kazan equally is delightful, managing the difficult role of being the offbeat girl next door but also retaining sympathy from the audience when she fights her feeling for the boy that we want her to be with. And filling the role of comedy relief is Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend Allan who suitably scene steals at each opportunity. What is surprising is that there are no bad guys in What If, usually the girl is in a relationship with the wrong man, that doesn’t treat her well but Chantry’s boyfriend Ben is no real villain, he is a nice guy who loves his girlfriend which makes it harder for Chantry to simply fall for Wallace. The film uses visual motifs to enhance the story and is set in Toronto which is a refreshing change and provides a scenic backdrop to the films narrative. Yet it almost undoes its own work by falling into the tropes of romantic comedies-a speech that hints at the feelings of the male lead, mad dashes to the airport, a situation where the man sees the girl in a state of undress- these elements almost feel like they have to be ticked off to fit the genre’s rulebook and appear a little forced in between other effortless seeming scenes. Though if we accept that there will be a level of predictability in these types of films, we can enjoy the familiarities that will lead us to a conclusion that we, in spite of ourselves, long for.
Arriving at the tail end of a summer stuffed with blockbusters and sequels, What If is a delightful film that does what is supposed to do, not change the world but simply to entertain. With sparky chemistry and sweet performances, this romcom may just be the antidote for those who don’t like romcoms.