Magic lost for Radcliffe in ‘What If,’ substance sacrificed for trite sweetness

What If” sounded promising: Harry Potter stars in an indie rendition of “When Harry Met Sally” and makes his Rom-Com debut with “Girls’” Adam Driver by his side.

The teenager in me was on board at the film’s very premise. But those sentiments soon faded, as I quickly found myself wanting more, dissatisfied by the film’s one-dimensional characters, predictable storyline and ultimately lackluster dialogue.

Directed by Michael Dowse, “What If” attempts to answer the apparently age-old question, “Can men and women really be just friends?”

Enter Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe): Wallace is heartbroken over the demise of his relationship one year ago and has since dropped out of medical school, moved in with his older sister and nephew and become a social recluse.

But everything is prone to change when Wallace meets adorkable Chantry (Zoe Kazan), the cousin of Wallace’s former college roommate and only friend who makes an appearance in the movie, the brazen Allan (Driver).

After a witty exchange, Wallace is smitten with Chantry, whose big blue eyes, bangs, and affinity for vintage prints are highly evocative—if not dabbling upon direct imitation—of Zooey Deschanel.

It seems that the stars have once again aligned for Wallace and he is ready to pursue love, which by the film’s standards ostensibly defines who is well adjusted and who is not.

But even in romantic comedies life has its obstacles, which in this case take form in Chantry’s boyfriend, Ben, played by a forgettable white dude. Perhaps due to the writing or perhaps due to the acting, Chantry’s boyfriend is completely unremarkable, and one feels no shame in their desire to see Wallace swoop in and steal Chantry away—an action that would be deemed as villainous in any real-world scenario.

Regardless of the boyfriend situation, Chantry and Wallace immediately hit it off, and audience members are taken on a not-so wild ride as the pair navigates the fine-lines between friendship and something more.

At its best, “What If” is slightly funny. At its worst, “What If” is boring, cliché and even a bit offensive.

Adam Driver’s character, Allan, is probably the best part of the film. At his surface, Allan is quite similar to Driver’s character on “Girls.” He is acerbic and crude but offers a much-needed edge to the film’s otherwise exhaustively saccharine dialogue.

The characteristic sweetness that pervades its way throughout the dialogue manifests itself visually as well. Chantry is an animator, and the film features a small, fairy-like cartoon version of Chantry that appears on-screen during rather emotional scenes and essentially represents Chantry’s spirit or aura. But where the unwaveringly-quirky dialogue and Chantry’s ModCloth-esque wardrobe come off as excessive, the animation, which harkens back to “Lizzie McGuire,” is cute without being over-the-top and one of the film’s most original elements.

The characteristic cuteness that permeates throughout the film creates for an ultimately unrealistic movie-going experience and prevents audience members from fully entering themselves into the world of the film. “What If” lacks the honesty that “(500) Days of Summer” was able to maintain while still presenting itself as off-beat and quirky.

In one scene, for instance, Chantry meets up with her girlfriends to partake in gossip and discuss the status of her friendship with Wallace. The group chooses not a coffee shop to meet and chat, but a local knitting hub. Small details like those—quirky for quirky’s sake—isolate the audience from its world.

In addition, the film almost totally lacks diversity. All of the actors listed on its IMDB page are white, and I for one was even uncomfortable watching this completely white-washed world presented on-screen.

Furthermore, the value-system implemented in “What If” is entirely skewed. Wallace is portrayed as an absolute mess and is shunned by the film’s fictional society. For the characters in “What If,” it is not one’s job or interests that define them but their relationship status. Even Allan, who lacks manners and constantly obscene, is placed at a higher societal value than Wallace, who is kind, smart and polite. This is due to the fact that Allan has found a girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) and is hence better adjusted.

All of the single characters are idiosyncratic, bizarre and, even, insane. For example, Chantry’s single younger sister Dalia (Megan Park) displays borderline psychopathic behavior throughout the film. It is as if in Toronto, where the film is set, your self-worth is entirely determined by whether or not you are currently in a relationship.

All of its faults aside, “What If” is not entirely painful to sit through. Radcliffe is a pleasure to watch on-screen, and his chemistry with Kazan is undeniable, albeit friendly, if not romantic.

For all of the injected sweetness, their relationship is believable and based in friendship rather than lust or superficiality. And (spoiler-alert) although the ending was more than predictable, I was satisfied to see Chantry and Wallace finally get together after an hour and a half of Wallace wondering, ‘what if?’

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