Directed by Michael Dowse
What If is to the romantic comedy genre what Geostorm is to the ‘fate of the world’ genre, except that What If is fantastic. It’s a straight down the middle rom-com, which means it hits a lot of cliches. Let me list a few…
- down on his luck guy; girl in a relationship; respective best friends; male best friend who is wild and crazy and funny but there to offer advice; best friend gets married over the course of the film; the child in the guy’s life that he gets to be nice to, making us like him more; a scene at that child’s athletic event; the girl’s best friend who wants to hook up with the guy, but she won’t let him; a wedding; a scene where they almost kiss; an international flight; an international flight to confess one’s love; getting punched in the face; taking a job in another country; having quirky jobs in a big city that isn’t New York or Los Angeles because those cities are so overused (Toronto); “I don’t have any idea what I’m doing;” making a list to help you make a decision; bright color palette; other characters who shouldn’t give a shit but who only talk about the main characters getting together; “I messed it up really bad;” the douchey boyfriend; the guy’s ex-girlfriend who cheated on him; everything is playful, both sadness and happiness, particularly someone’s despair; conversations that show the characters bonding which the girl will bring up around her boyfriend to see if he finds it as fun as she and the guy did, but he won’t; the boyfriend is much more rigid and unfun than the guy; a best man speech; general whimsy; opening shots of the city skyline; meet cute at a party which mirrors the party at the end; quirky friends with quirky hairstyles; lots of job promotion talk; a love life that mirrors or inverts the characters’ career prospects and decisions; quirky names like Chantry and Wallace; a scene where he considers deleting her contact info; idea that they’re meant to be together; playful alcoholism; coffee dates; the music; call backs; a jump forward in time; Zoe Kazan; going to movies alone; nontraditional wedding cake; the two leading characters resemble each other; the city skyline in the last shot as they kiss and the camera pans up to the stars.
Holy shit I think I love romantic comedies.
Wallace is played by Daniel Radcliffe, and though I think he’s a little miscast here, Radcliffe is just such a delightful personality. Chantry is played by Zoe Kazan who seems to be in a lot of romantic comedies these days, most recently The Big Sick.
Wallace has a broken heart, which his best friend Allan (Adam Driver) playfully makes fun of before introducing him to his cousin, Chantry, at a house party. Then Allan meets Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), and they embark on a side romance that develops throughout the background of the movie, first marriage and then eventually having a kid. This is just like When Harry Met Sally and a handful of other romantic comedies I can’t think of right now.
Wallace is taken with Chantry, but she has a boyfriend. Later they will meet again while both are out watching a showing of The Princess Bride alone. They agree to be friends, and soon Chantry asks him to meet her boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall). Ben is absurdly douchey, and he immediately threatens Wallace, asking if he’s trying to sleep with his girlfriend. At a dinner party, a series of incidents leads to Ben falling out a second-story window to what would surely be his death. As it is he’s just badly bruised, and at the hospital Wallace and Chantry run into his ex-girlfriend.
The story is already so ridiculous, but it’s great isn’t it? I mean, I think romantic comedies are all about wish fulfillment, suggesting that no matter how dark life can get, there’s always something out there pulling you to becoming whoever you need to be, often with someone else. It’s a very cheesy but reassuring view of the world. No matter what, we end up becoming ourselves.
The rest of the plot doesn’t really matter. Wallace and Chantry continue to be best friends, Ben takes a job in Dublin, allowing the two romantic leads to spend more time together. Each character has a job, but it never really matters. You know the job is only there to say something about the direction of their respective lives. Chantry is an animator who turned down a job promotion because she enjoys her job so much, and Wallace is a med-school dropout who will surely return to med school when it’s time for him to turn his life around.
The best parts of the movie are the scenes with Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis. They play a wild couple whose rush into their own relationship contrasts with the reluctance for Wallace and Chantry to become more involved. And to be perfectly honest, Allan and Nicole are the much more interesting couple but perhaps only because their story is told in much less screen time.
Wallace and Chantry bond, share a few flirtatious moments, but then they have a falling out when Wallace confesses his true feelings and she feels like he lied to her. After some time apart they come back together, and then there’s a 18 month time jump to show us that they’re now married. It’s all just so damn swell.
I can’t tell if there’s any self-awareness in a movie like this. I mean, there must be. It hits so many of the familiar romantic comedy plot points, but all the actors seem to be having fun making this. It’s so sappy, but I can’t stop thinking about how much I love a movie like this. Maybe it’s because what the characters feel is very universal. It’s about feeling down and out but then finding immediate salvation in someone else. It’s probably not the healthiest way to approach life, jumping from one person to the next without getting to know yourself a little first, but it’s nonetheless comforting. If this doesn’t work out, the next thing will.
So I think rom-coms are incredibly flawed, but they’re not meant to be taken seriously, right? You know it’s silly, and you know this isn’t how life works or how it even should work. If everyone was jumping from one relationship to the next, with all their energy focused on that particular relationship, then nothing would ever get done in the world. But it’s nice to think about, I suppose.
The movie does suffer a little from the ‘quirk’ factor. Each character is too damn quirky. Oh, they both like watching old movies like The Princess Bride by themselves? I would too, actually. Oh, she’s an animator? That’s pretty impressive, but they treat it like just another casual job. Oh, her apartment is amazing? It’s the same thing with every sitcom, with characters talking about the mundanity of their jobs while they live in these amazing, lavish apartments, seemingly blind to their own good fortune. And all of this does get a little tiring, but not enough for me to give this movie anything lower than an A+. Oh, what is that? I don’t ever rate the movies I write about? Well this one’s an A+.
Thinking a little more objectively, this is a bad movie. But what could you possibly do to fix it? If you were to make this movie ‘good,’ there are so many things to fix that you’d be creating an entirely different movie. So for something to be good, you have to understand what it’s objectives are, and as a romantic comedy, this movie checks off every box on its genre list. There are even painfully cheesy set ups and call backs, but I could never make a rom-com as good as this one. Ok, it’s not as good as When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall or even Sleepless in Seattle though it’s surely better than You’ve Got Mail which did, I suppose, have its own charm either because of or despite the ridiculous psychopathy of Tom Hanks’ character. Sometimes the best genre movies are so faithful to their genre conventions that they start to betray real-world behavior. Think of how creepy the man’s pursuit of the woman often is in movies.
But What If is so great. It’s so bad, but it’s so great. And I genuinely love so many of the people involved, particularly Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis. In fact, the movie’s trailer opens with my absolute favorite moment of the movie:
That’s all I got, the movie is free on Amazon Prime which is the only reason I watched it, and Jesus it’s tremendous. I just want to hang out with all of these actors, maybe not the characters but certainly the actors.
Up Next: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Bernie (2011), Lost in Translation (2003)