Too long? Read my 100 word review at One Room with a View instead.
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a friend’s party and is instantly enthralled. They hit it off but there’s a problem; Chantry’s long-term boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Cue an agonizing couple of months for Wallace, spending strictly platonic time with Chantry in the hope it’ll lead to more.
Despite its title this isn’t a film about ‘if’, it’s about ‘when’. Yet as this will-they-won’t-they tale progresses sometimes ploddingly to its inevitable conclusion, the long-awaited coupling of Wallace and Chantry doesn’t always seem a sure thing. A stand-out surprise occurs when skinny dipping and stargazing fail to lead to a predictable first kiss.
Partly thanks to the smidgen of suspense the film is an enjoyable ride, transcending the storytelling prowess of many rom-coms by providing its protagonists with convincing back stories, though disappointingly they’re sometimes delivered via a clunky narrative device.
While Wallace’s career stagnates as he coasts in a tedious office job after dropping out of med school, Chantry is remarkably sorted in her career at an animation studio, providing an antithesis to the post-college slump documented by HBO’s Girls. What If even features Adam Driver talking in full sentences as Wallace’s pal Allan, surely Driver’s most personality-filled character to date.
Although the spotlight’s on Radcliffe in one of his first high profile non-fantasy roles What If’s international cast excel almost all round. Kazan’s Chantry will draw some sympathy but she’s dreamy and a little insubstantial, not to mention infuriating in the manner of (500) Days of Summer’s eponymous heroine (played by queen of whimsy Zooey Deschanel). As Chantry’s bland boyfriend Rafe Spall manages a decent Canadian accent though he’s most memorable for his involvement in most of the film’s out of place moments of slapstick comedy.
Brit TV veteran Jemima Rooper is perfectly understated in a cameo as Wallace’s sister. She gets to perform alongside Radcliffe in the film’s funniest scene, which involves a sandwich, rapid talking and the Heimlich manoeuvre.
The script ranges from average to sharp and witty, with an early rendezvous between Wallace and Chantry at a cinema working in a lovely tribute to cult favourite The Princess Bride.
Charming animation sporadically invades the frame and is given free reign for the closing credits, but What If’s insistent repetition and circularity contributes to the number of clichés it cannot resist including.
Though flawed, this is a frank but fun story of frustrated attraction, denial and emotional adultery boosted by a bold and nuanced leading performance from Radcliffe.