Canadian director Michael Dowse is not the sort of filmmaker that seems well-suited to handle a twee romantic comedy like What If, but he is qualified for a ribald look at 20-something relationships like The F Word, which happen to be the same film. Titles, like book covers, shouldn’t be used to judge a film itself, but the name change from The F Word (which the film premiered as at the Toronto International Film Festival) to What If is indicative of the competing sensibilities at play in Dowse’s latest. Transitioning here to the friend zone from the penalty box, Dowse’s 2011 film, Goon, was a piss and vinegar-fuelled story of a lunkhead bouncer rising to minor fame as a hockey enforcer, its secret weapon being a surprising sweetness to compliment the small stakes. As implied by its original, MPAA feather-ruffling title, What If carries over Goon’s gently raunchy spirit, which, thanks to a strong cast, gives the film an identity separate from its conventional genre comedy trappings.
That familiarity is the biggest hump that the What If has to get over, as its logline does little to give the impression you haven’t already taken this trip before. Tackling the well-researched quandary of “can men and women ever just be friends?”, the film makes for an interesting case study in how the romcom genre has changed over the 25 years since When Harry Met Sally answered the age-old question for an older generation. The characters are younger, their names (like much of the film’s aesthetic) are forcibly unconventional, and the story is set in Toronto, which is the romcom setting equivalent of the stylish foreign kid who hangs outside the party all night smoking cigarettes and listening to Sonic Youth on their Walkman.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Wallace, a medical school dropout still reeling from heartbreak more than a year after being cheated on by a long-term girlfriend. Coaxed into a night out by his unhinged Lothario of a best friend, Allan (Adam Driver), Wallace meets the spritely Chantry at a party. The two instantly hit it off, from meet-cute (here: rearranging fridge word magnets into character-defining mad libs), to late night revelation that Chantry is already happily involved with another guy. Agreeing their connection is worthy of pursuit even with sex off the table, the two seal their friendship with a handshake, unknowingly starting a countdown for when a strictly platonic relationship will become untenable.
Like anytime you’ve ever had to play third wheel to a couple this obsessed with one another, your enjoyment and tolerance for What If depends on just how captivated you are in the intentionally scatological conversations that Wallace and Chantry share. Thankfully, Kazan and Radcliffe make for a terrific pairing, so even if you’re not terribly engaged by topics like Elvis’ late-life diet, or the origins of the name Cool Whip, you’ll have no trouble buying the authenticity of their interest in such digressions. The dialogue flows nicely off of Elan Mastai’s bubbly script (adapted from a stage play), which insightfully recognizes how comfortable young people today are in using gross-out tangents as a means of relating to one another.
What If’s saltiness adds some kick to the story, which follows expected beats without acknowledging the general absurdity of its premise. The lives of Wallace and Chantry’s friends revolve around them in that romcom way where supporting characters are sorted according to gender, the twain only ever meeting to hookup. It’s an outdated holdover for what’s an already outdated central conflict, with Driver’s Allan, and Mackenzie Davis as his equally libidinous girlfriend, stealing every scene they’re in by shaking up the status quo. There’s more energy and excitement to Driver’s performance in a bellowed line like “I just had sex, and now I’m eating nachos!” than Radcliffe or Kazan are allowed to let out in much of their down-tempo tango around one another.
The central non-romance does work though, and the film is fair to both halves of the equation. Wallace is aware that to try and advance the relationship is as selfish as holding a torch for a seemingly committed woman is pathetic, so the only winning move is to try suppressing his romantic feelings entirely. Rather than taking the easy route by making her boyfriend a cad (though Dowse does hilariously drop him out a window at one point), Chantry herself has the added pressure of having something to lose should things with Wallace ever turn into something more. Even if its beats are wholly typical for the genre, What If has a sure enough head on its shoulders to go through the motions without having to villainize any of the characters, or rely on contrived misunderstandings.
A whispy-voiced acoustic soundtrack and cutesy animated interludes are a little too precious for the film’s own good (much funnier is an imagined haranguing from Chantry that Wallace has while fending off her rebounding sister), and there’s very little depth to these people beyond the tension of their will-they-won’t-they. They are fun to hangout with, though, and in true romcom fashion, Dowse makes his setting the key supporting player. The nostalgia-driven house parties, the crummy beer everyone drinks, and the half-city, half-suburb bustle of Toronto make for an effectively modest backdrop to a story this small in scope.
What If does little to put much of an original spin on the romantic comedy wheel, let alone reinvent it, but it’s often too damn well-meaning and pleasant to fault. The cast is likeable across the board, and the low-key chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan livens up the banter even when it doesn’t go to the weird and disgusting places that separate What If from the many other romcom fish in the sea.
As with Goon before it, director Michael Dowse's charmingly crude sensibilities elevate What If above the genre conventions it leans heavily on.