Based on the novel and later stage play; Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, 2013’s What If (alternatively titled: The F Word), is a light-hearted romantic-comedy that largely overcomes its familiar framework and few derivative elements. Continuously mindful of the many clichés associated with rom-coms, What If employs an abundance of witty dialogue, subversive story decisions and the effervescent chemistry of its leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, to deliver a charming, self-aware romantic-comedy that will appeal to those well-acquainted with the genre (and its typical shortcomings), as well as those who prefer the ‘com’ to the ‘rom’ portions of a rom-com.
Plot Summary: After being repeatedly burned by bad relationships, medical school dropout, Wallace, decides to put his love life on hold while everyone around him seems to be finding the perfect partner. But, when Wallace meets Chantry at a house party, an endearing animator who lives with her long-time boyfriend, Ben. The pair form an instant connection, striking up a close friendship and leaving Wallace to contemplate whether his newly-found friend could also be the love of his life…
Directed by Michael Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Goon, Stuber) and written by Elan Mastai. In many ways, the screenplay for What If feels as if it was conceived as an unabashed tribute to the exemplary romantic-comedy; When Harry Met Sally from 1989. Primarily due to its underlining theme/question of whether a man and a woman can truly just be friends. However, unlike that renowned rom-com, What If places a heavy emphasis on its characters and their relationships, alongside its hilarious gags. As a result, many of the cringe-inducing comedic moments feel very natural and in-character, as opposed to feeling like embarrassing scenarios the screenwriter conjured up on the spot. As previously mentioned, What If is also continually conscious of the numerous painful clichés that plague the rom-com genre, attempting to avoid them at every turn. As such, the film crafts many of its amusing yet romantically uncomfortable situations in unpredictable ways, rather than what the audience would typically expect, which works remarkably well.
Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, the story’s polite and self-effacing protagonist, Wallace, is close enough to Radcliffe’s actual personality that the actor rarely feels as if he is portraying a fictional character, yet he is immensely entertaining to watch, nonetheless. And, when paired with the charismatic and equally likeable Zoe Kazan, whose character, Chantry, is luminously quirky, the pair’s excellent chemistry quickly bubbles to the surface. In addition to the leading duo, Wallace’s outlandish best friend, Allan, portrayed by Adam Driver, provides a considerable amount of the film’s most amusing moments, as his wild personality is a fantastic foil to Wallace’s often pessimistic view of the world. Then there is Rafe Spall as Chantry’s long-lasting boyfriend, Rob, who, thankfully isn’t written as a simplistic, cheating miscreant designed to simply push his girlfriend into the arms of the protagonist. If truth be told, the only character the film squanders is Wallace’s sister, Ellie, portrayed by Jemima Rooper, as she is incredibly under-utilised, only appearing in two (inconsequential) scenes.
When it comes to visuals, the cinematography by Rogier Stoffers maintains a light touch throughout the runtime, allowing the photogenic city of Toronto to function as a vibrant setting without ever seeming overly romanticised, which is a satisfying contrast to many other city-set romantic-comedies. Additionally, to correspond with Chantry working at an animation studio, What If seizes the opportunity to add some flair to its visuals by having many of its characters sporadically daydream. These mental fabrications are represented by Chantry’s cartoonish sketches coming to life and appearing alongside the characters, usually in a projection-like form via their surroundings.
Despite What If presenting its song choices as the focal point of its audio instead of its acoustic-led original score, many of the tracks by composer; A.C. Newman, including Beach Bummer and Packing with Dalia, are cordial and possess a delightful little motif. Still, the licensed songs are naturally the most memorable part of the soundtrack, with upbeat tunes like Best of Friends, Big Bird in a Small Cage and Let’s Get High sufficiently supporting the story and its central underlining theme.
Sticking with the notion of avoiding romantic-comedy tropes, the ending of What If is a rather restrained piece of storytelling that merely gets across what details it needs to before cutting to black. The ending is a terrific throwback to a line of dialogue from earlier in the film, bringing the story to completion. That is essentially why I prefer that original ending to the extended ending that was shot eighteen months later, as where the original climax is drawn-back and concise, the extended ending feels unnecessarily long and even falls into a couple of the stale plot points What If was trying to sidestep throughout its narrative.
In summary, What If is a feel-good flick that frequently flirts with rom-com clichés yet skillfully evades the worst of them, all while traversing into unexpected territory, both comedically and dramatically. Whilst I’d argue the film has widespread appeal, those who enjoyed Michael Dowse’s previous outings are especially likely to appreciate What If, as it similarly blends a warm, earnest attitude with shocking, irreverent jokes. Repeatedly pointing out how much better romantic-comedies can be when you have fully-formed characters and exceptional performances, in addition to side-splitting wisecracks. Rating: low 8/10.