It’s the eternal struggle. (Well, one of the many at least; humanity does not make things easy for itself.)
At what point does a friend become something more and is that even possible when the object of your unstated but clearly obvious affection is not even in the position to be anything other than a friend?
And if you decide you will be friends, how does that even work exactly? Are you doomed to fall prey to the central idea percolating through When Harry Met Sally that it is impossible for straight men and women to simply be friends without sex raising its lustful head?
That’s a lot of romantic rumination to take into consideration, all of which gets a quirkly amusing look-in in the Elan Mastai-scripted, Michael Dowse-directed film, What If? (The F Word) which wonders aloud and with much witty banter, whether you can just be friends or whether the weight of the attraction underpinning the beginning of that friendship will finally make its presence felt in ways you can’t even begin to predict (or maybe you can if you could just be honest with yourself)?
The two people caught in this conundrum are animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan) and medical school drop out Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), who meet at a party that Wallace’s cousin Allan (Adam Driver, very much in Girls mode) has dragged him too after 374 days of moping about, hermit-like, over the unfaithfulness of ex-girlfriend and fellow doctor-to-be Megan (Sarah Gadon).
Wallace really doesn’t want to be there but figures he needs to do something to prove to Allan, and his sister Ellie (Jemima Rooper), that he can do more than mourn a lost love and work in a dead end job writing software manuals.
The meet-cute is perfection itself, with Wallace and Chantry trading the kind of pithy, funny, clever oneliners of which dream conversations are made and in which mere tongue-tied mortals rarely get to participate.
The delightful back-and-forth of their first meeting all takes places over fridge magnet poetry with Wallace’s cynically fun offering – “Love is stupid monkeys dancing in a slapstick hurricane” – countered by Chantry’s equally poetic and obtuse – “We are nothing but dancing light in the restless dream of a roasted pig”.
Pullitzer Prize-winning poetry it is not, but it is the gateway to possible new love for Wallace; that is, until after walking Chantry back to her place, he discovers she has a boyfriend named Ben (Rafe Spall) who is not only sweet and loving, if a little narcissistic but a UN international copyright law lawyer who’s damn good at his job.
Goodbye newly-birthed dreams of romantic rebirth thinks Wallace and hello to that sinking feeling that he will likely be alone forever.
But What If? is a romantic comedy where reality cannot be tolerated for too long or at least where it can be subverted by sweet dreams of what might be, and so in short order, Wallace and Chantry become best buds, seeing movies together, catching up for brunch and telling anyone who will listen including Allan, new girlfriend Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), Ben and Chantry’s cousin Dalia (Megan Park), that they are “JUST FRIENDS!” thank you very much.
Yeah, no one actually believes them, and neither do Wallace and Chantry if they’re being honest with themselves but they are decent people who want to do the right thing by those they love and so neither makes a move even though it is clear that the move is, in fact, being made in small incremental and close-to-boundary-crossing ways.
You know, of course, that they are destined for each other but Mastai, whose script languished on Hollywood’s Black List until it was picked for production after being highlighted in the 2008 survey of the “most-liked” scripts not yet given the nod, has some fun stringing things along as Wallace and Chantry do their best to resist fate.
It’s a real world scenario given some very rom-comy and unrealistic expression which you wholly go along with because Radcliffe and Kazan are so damn good and likable in their roles.
It helps too that Mastai doesn’t ever make it feel like What If? is one big exercise in stretching things out for as long as possible; that is, of course, exactly what it is but the film never feels, not even a little like it’s spinning its wheels waiting until the inevitable finale, a piece of screenplay and performance trickery that works an absolute treat.
Much of this narrative sleight of hand comes down to fine performances as previously noted, and not just the two leads but also Driver and Mackenzie too, but that’s not all that’s in play here.
The dialogue zings around, effervescent and effortless, artfully-constructed words that are up in the realms of the conversational gods but which are so much fun to listen to that you happily go along with the cadence-rich wordplay just because it sounds so damn good.
If What If? was real, one hundred percent, feet-of-clay real, then you would probably soon begin to wonder who on earth these people are, talking like Shakespeare via Nora Ephron, but it is a rom-com, and in this rarefied world people get offered promotions they didn’t seek, have a second chance at life that unfolds with effortless perfection, have friends who can be arseholes at times but who always come good in the end, and who speak about it all like they are fresh from elocution school.
Helping the film’s appeal too is the fact that both Kazan and Radcliffe feel believable as their respective characters, no mean feat in a rom-com where suspension of belief is pretty much par for the course and everything is fairytale confection.
Both actors bring a sense of emotional resonance to their roles, which extends far beyond the usual tick the boxes acting of most rom-coms, an important act on both their parts because the really good, classic films of the genre always feel like they are grounded in some ways despite their inherent fancifulness.
Granted, part of the act of watching a rom-com comes down to your willingness to accepting that life is never that perfect or easy but that you wish it could be; even so, if the to leads, the ones who are meant to really, really want each other, all obstacles notwithstanding, don’t feel like they are real in some way, like it all means something, then any sense of investment is chipped away until you don’t really care one way or the other if they finally end up together.
The brilliance of What If? is that you really do care, all genre-specific narrative accoutrement aside, whether Wallace and Chantry finally come together as a couple, not simply because they are clearly meant to be a couple but because they are inherently decent people who try to do the right thing by themselves and those around him pretty much the whole way through.
What If? is that rare cinematic creature – a rom-com that is as delightfully and divertingly unrealistic as the rest of the films in the genre, but which nevertheless feels affecting and grounded, real human emotions and a heartfelt romantic conundrum wrapped in a frothy, fun, dialogue-rich package that feel like they belong together, just like Wallace and Chantry,.