"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