Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
Entertainment Movies

Review: 'What If' ★★

Fast mouths, confused hearts abound in the new Daniel Radcliffe-Zoe Kazan romcom What If

"What If" brings up the distinctions among wit, jokes and robotic banter, and this new romantic comedy has a bit of the first and a few of the second, but it's largely a case of the third.

The script, adapted by Elan Mastai from the play "Toothpaste and Cigars," does a few things right. It affords the female characters a decent 50 percent stake in the action. It allows for some ambiguity and edge and doesn't beg for the audience's sympathy, even though the outcome is never in doubt. Spoiler alert: "What If" does not end with anybody getting killed.

But the best rom-coms have an easy-breathing way about them, even when the talk is fast, as it so rarely is in the movies these days. Here the pulse rate's high — neurotically peppy. We sense potential in the early meeting, at a party, of med-school dropout Wallace, played by Daniel Radcliffe, and animator Chantry, played by Zoe Kazan. The banter's tightly wound, self-deprecating and gently needling in equal measure. They play with fridge magnet poetry. They suss out each other's reasons for being at the party. Wallace is instantly smitten; Chantry may be too.

A romantic trapped in an emotional turtle shell, Wallace has yet to recover from a bad breakup. Chantry lives with her vaguely controlling boyfriend (Rafe Spall), so despite the Certain Special Something in the air between Chantry and Wallace, they agree to become friends, not lovers. The prospect of more hangs over them, always.

From there "What If" contrives the usual reasons for the leads to come together, a bit, over the course of a year, then run to their respective corners, while the side characters have the fun. Wallace's pal Allan (Adam Driver) has a new love (Mackenzie Davis). Chantry's lippy younger sister (Megan Park) sees Wallace as a possible one-off for herself. This is "When Harry Met Sally" territory relocated to Toronto, which means the streets are cleaner.

Why did the film's charms elude me? I felt arm-twisted by "What If," for all its tossed-off verbiage and wisecracking. Radcliffe has loads of charm but very little in the way of a relaxed and natural comic range. I find Kazan pleasant and skillful and interestingly off-center in her timing, and she's physically looser than the average rom-com lead. Yet without sufficiently interesting material the stars' efforts feel, well, effortful.

On the other hand: If there's a teenager in your house interested in seeing it, I'd say sure, don't discourage her or him. At least "What If" is about young adults groping toward some sort of relational wisdom. It may not be very good, but there are no Transformers in it.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including references throughout, partial nudity and language)

Running time: 1:42

Opens: Friday at AMC River East 21, Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, Century 12 Evanston/CineArts 6.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Review: 'Calvary' ★★★
    Review: 'Calvary' ★★★

    Scene: a confessional, somewhere in Ireland. The camera stays on Father James while an unseen male, the victim of clergy abuse long ago, speaks in seething tones about having "tasted semen" at a terrifyingly young age. Well, says the momentarily stunned priest. "Certainly a startling opening...

  • Review: 'Merchants of Doubt'
    Review: 'Merchants of Doubt'

    Don't underestimate Robert Kenner's "Merchants of Doubt." It may sound like a standard-issue advocacy documentary concerned, as so many are, with the perils of global warming, but it's a lot more than that.

  • Review: 'Home'
    Review: 'Home'

    The cuddliest alien invasion movie ever, "Home" contains nifty turns of phrase and some actual, verifiable verbal wit, owing in large part to its source material, Adam Rex's 2007 children's book "The True Meaning of Smekday."

  • Review: 'Get Hard'
    Review: 'Get Hard'

    An awful lot of "Get Hard" depends on gay-panic humor of a weirdly squirmy and dated sort, making you wonder if this new Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart mystery might best be viewed alongside reissues of "Cruising" and "Norman … Is That You?"

  • Review: '71'
    Review: '71'

    First performed in 1923, following an early chapter in that quaint, understated late 1960s-coined cycle of violence known as the Troubles, Sean O'Casey's play "The Shadow of a Gunman" imagined a crowded tenement house that becomes a microcosm of the Irish War of Independence. A key scene in...

  • Review: 'It Follows'
    Review: 'It Follows'

    A film of slow builds and medium-grade payoffs, "It Follows" imagines a curse represented by a shape-shifting apparition that might be as ordinary-looking as the boy next door. The curse is transmittable only by intercourse, and the infected rid themselves of the deadly phantom by hooking up...

  • Review: 'The Gunman'
    Review: 'The Gunman'

    Speedy brutality is the spoonful of sugar in most action movies, making the narrative medicine go down for as large an international audience as possible. I'm not blowing any surprises by pointing this out. Besides, with "The Gunman," the surprises keep on not coming. You've seen a lot of it...

  • Review: 'Insurgent'
    Review: 'Insurgent'

    Chicago has never looked less toddlin' than it does in "Insurgent," the second of four planned movies to be pulled, taffylike, out of the hugely popular Veronica Roth trilogy. At one point our fierce yet humble dystopian world saver, Tris Prior, played by the fierce but humble franchise...