Not Just Friends: "What If" buoyed by Radcliffe and Kazan

What If (2014)
98 min., rated PG-13.

What if a romantic comedy actually showed some effort in being fresh without completely diverging from formula at all? Formerly titled "The F Word" (as in "friends") at last year's Toronto Film Festival, "What If" is closer in sensibility to "(500) Days of Summer" than "You've Got Mail" in that it wants to subvert genre tropes rather than fully embrace them. Naturally, it succumbs to those dear tropes. As adapted by Elan Mastai (whose scribe work for 2005's "Alone in the Dark" must have been one of his darkest days) from the play "Toothpaste and Cigars" and directed by Michael Dowse (2012's "Goon"), the film poses that age-old burning question that "When Harry Met Sally…" proved could not work that well. The jury is still out if men and women can just be friends without the sex part getting in the way, but this Toronto-set romantic comedy isn't out to rewrite the playbook at all or explore any untrodden, boundary-breaking terrain. Coming at a time when the tired, much-maligned genre has just recently been skewered in "They Came Together," it's rather traditional but nearer a likable, recommendable status than the opposite.

In Toronto, British office drone Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a medical dropout who has just recently dumped his girlfriend for cheating on him. With the heartbreak still too fresh, he then meets vivacious animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan), the cousin to Wallace's college roomie and friend Allan (Adam Driver), at a party. They instantly form a bond, even though Chantry is up front about having a live-in boyfriend whom she's been with for five years. Wallace and Chantry run into each other at a retro screening of "The Princess Bride" and start a friendship as if they're old friends, and the time finally comes for him to meet her diplomatic boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), as well as her desperate-to-rebound-date sister Dalia (Megan Park). Wallace would rather be friends with Chantry than nothing at all, but it will be hard to remain platonic when Ben moves to Ireland for six months and Chantry feels lonely. Complications ensue when Wallace can't fight this feeling anymore.

"What If" is formula through and through, but like most romantic comedies that need not reinvent the wheel or always be dependent on the element of surprise, it's all in how the story is carried out with its characters, dialogue and tone. This one's execution is breezily diverting and cute, maybe sometimes too cute. It certainly gets off to an unctuous start, the repartee being overly smitten with itself and coming off less witty and cleverly hip than it believes itself to be. Still, the majority of the dialogue is sharper than usual, as articulate characters speak in a glibly heightened, snarky fashion. Then on occasion, there is a verbal fixation on excrement and a strained, irritating wackiness creeping in without really furthering the story or helping it seem authentic. When supporting characters aren't talking about bowel movements, the film stays on point and maintains an appealing buoyancy. It's the little moments that shine, like Chantry insisting she's a size "2" and then asking Wallace for help out of the dress in a store fitting room, or Wallace and Chantry going skinny-dipping and then being left on the beach without clothes to share one sleeping bag. Michael Dowse's simple direction is complemented by animated-sketch flights of fancy, which is just one more attempt to add whimsy, while Elan Mastai's screenplay brings fridge-magnet words, alternative names for Cool Whip and a "Fool's Gold Loaf" sandwich as a romantic gesture to the table. Also, how refreshing to see the Canadian city playing itself and not standing in for another location.

The film hinges all on whether or not you care about Wallace and Chantry, their connection buoyed all the more by the young actors playing them. Distancing himself from the "Harry Potter" franchise he grew up making for an entire decade of his life, Daniel Radcliffe is charming enough as the initially heartbroken Wallace, who wouldn't dare break up Chantry's relationship. More than playing just the so-called "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" from "Ruby Sparks," Zoe Kazan is an unfailingly adorable delight as Chantry. The absolute scene-stealers' names are Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis (one of the best things in "That Awkward Moment"), both loose and comedically nimble as randy, spontaneous friends Allan and Nicole who round off a slew of "I wants" when licking each other's faces off. Rafe Spall might have been pigeonholed in the tough role of Chantry's boyfriend Ben, who threatens Wallace with a smile if his plans were to take his girlfriend away, but he finds a way to keep the character more sympathetic than most actors could. Megan Park is also a hoot as Chantry's sister Dalia, who tries forcing herself onto Wallace. Finally, Lucius Hoyos and Jemina Rooper are sweetly amusing, albeit underused, as Wallace's nephew and sister, the latter turning the eating of a sandwich and the need for the Heimlich maneuver into a sly bit of slapstick. 

As long as one can get over the characters' slight air of navel-gazing, "What If" will more than suffice as a pleasant, smarter-than-you're-expecting relationship comedy for the Lena Dunham generation. It still follows a conventional template with several "of course" beats that bring along a few falling-outs for our focal couple. Will Chantry find herself split between two men and a promotion for her career? Of course. Will Wallace eventually confront his deeper connection with Chantry? Of course. Then again, the film doesn't always seem predetermined that these two twentysomethings will end up together. Of course, they do, and that's why this sort of film is more special and harder to resist in the getting-there than a destination that might as well come with a smiley emoticon. When Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are your leads, you'll have what they're having.

Grade: B -