The release of (500) Days of Summer a mere five years ago appeared to bring with it a sense of regeneration for the genre of the romantic comedy. Rather than pitch itself as ‘a love story’, it stood more critically as ‘a story about love’, willing to carry the romantic-comedy to seldomly-chartered terrain in its innovation, diminishing in part the fantasy of relationships and foregrounding the reality of their possible failure.
As you may have seen scrawled across a number of city-based buses, What If has been pitted by some as the best rom-com since the arrival of that film, aiming to shed light on the awkward space between friendship and romantic involvement. Sadly, however, only flickers of originality exist within the greater surroundings of Michael Dowse’s latest effort, outweighed by the overbearing shadow of a more predictable whole.
Radcliffe and Kazan play ridiculously-named pair Wallace and Chantry, two twenty-somethings inhabiting the hipsterfied universe of Toronto, heftily-clad with IOS software and idiosyncratic pastimes. She is an artsy animator with quirk and social nonconformity in abundance (one assumes); he a college drop-out desperately seeking to ‘find himself’ through true love or, at least, a sustainable relationship. Their paths meet at the kind of mellow party that has become so pervasive in American (or, in this case, North American) culture, where characters can drift towards each other astrologically in the dimly-lit surroundings of a spacious and sufficiently quiet apartment. They even bond over the humorous arrangement of worded fridge magnets. How cute.
And so, Manic Pixie Dream Girl meets desolate underdog with entitlement issues in an oft-trodden narrative that ends with the predictably schmaltzy union of the couple? Not quite. The conventional framework this film would appear to find itself in is offset by the slight ‘twist’ that Chantry herself has a boyfriend (Rafe Spall). The real twist, however, is that he is not the dick-headed, villainous trope of boyfriends that so regularly pop up in the genre, the mere obstacle to protagonistic union at the climax of the film. Instead, he, like most people in the real world, is just a person. And, likewise, removed from the sporadic action of the typical romance, the characters here are left to sit out a love triangle made more complicated by its inherent mundanity.
Parts of What If may ignite hope in cynics who believe the genre may be on its last legs. Radcliffe, in spite of his innate Radcliffe-ness, brings a subtle tenderness to Wallace, one that might have been washed away under the unremarkable tide of characters like him in recent cinema. There’s a greater weight and tangibility to the sense of disillusionment he feels towards himself. Perhaps the actor’s real attempts to escape the perpetuating guise of Potter mirror the onscreen woes of his character, struggling to transcend the difficulties of a failed relationship. Kazan too keeps the quirk to a minimum, heightening the endearing chemistry between the two sparked on by the film’s march of pseudo-improvisatory dialogue. At certain points, though, the quips of the script fall entirely flat, regurgitated rapidly without any life or emotion, the connection between our central couple undercut by a heavy-handed desire to fit as many quick jokes into a single conversation as physically possible. The charm begins to wear away and one is reminded, if only briefly, of the sad triteness of it all.
But, the most disappointing aspect of all comes in What If’s streamlined final act. Just when it seems to clear its throat, when it appears to have something to say about all the bullshit complications of romantic relationships, guy-codes, girl-codes, the overall etiquette, it reverts to the tired conventions of the genre, as if it didn’t trust itself to do so in the first place. Falling embarrassingly short of the heights of (500) Days of Summer, the saddest part of all is that, in spite of the film’s many memorable fragments, it lies in fear of straddling into forgotten territory along with plentitudes of other generic churnings. What If? Exactly.