Looking back over Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter career there are glimpses that he might make a quirky lead in later life. But What If demonstrates more than anything that the Boy Wizard has a wonderfully self-deprecating screen presence far beyond the world of magic and monsters. Indeed having toyed with horror, in the form of The Woman In Black and Horns, and drama; Kill Your Darlings, What If highlights that Radcliffe’s forte may lie in comic timing.
Wallace (Radcliffe) is a down on his luck, hurt by love loner. At his best friend Allan’s (Adam Driver) house party he meets quirky animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan). The two strike a bond and become firm friends. But Wallace is harboring more than friendly feelings for Chantry and she’s happily living with her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). So can Wallace and Chantry remain close friends without letting sexual feelings compromise their relationship?
It’s a path well worn and never bettered than by the seminal romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. What If doesn’t just owe a debt to Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s brilliance but a full on ‘Special Thanks’ credit. Crucially though it shares much of that film’s adorable and warmly genuine heart. It refuses to telegraph whether or not Wallace and Chantry will end up together, sure, you want them to but the obstacles always seem a little too big and it’s that age-old question of; is it worth destroying a friendship to see if there is something more there?
Unlike Harry and Sally, Wallace only ever hides his feelings for Chantry to her. To everyone else it’s abundantly clear, including slightly possessive boyfriend Ben. Based on T.J. Dawes and Michael Rinaldi’s play Elan Mastai’s script is an endless delight of streaming consciousness on love and all the pitfalls that come with it. The highlight though is Wallace’s cynicism of romance being first agreed upon by all his friends and then slowly proven wrong. While the Hollywood / greetings card sentimentality of the perfect true love bubbles below the surface What If at least offers a counter argument much like Crazy, Stupid Love did. That sometimes love is messy and just because a film about it makes you laugh doesn’t mean to say it’s going to romanticise it.
Mastai’s script, and the film itself, spring to grin inducing life thanks to the two central performances. Kazan proves once again after Ruby Sparks that she is the perfect girl next-door combination of pretty and witty. It’s no wonder Wallace falls for her with her off-kilter outlook on the world and her smartly delivered flirtations combined with insecurities. Radcliffe meanwhile gives easily his best performance. His Wallace is socially awkward, tapping into Radcliffe’s almost natural body language, with a defeatist self preservation mentality. Put these two together and their on-screen chemistry is palpable.
Treading over well-worn romantic comedy ground What If rises above cliché thanks to some crisp dialogue and two actors pulling out all the stops to make you believe in true friendship and what could be if you take a chance.