Few genres have taken their lumps like the romantic comedy — endlessly pronounced dead as new ones keep coming, lamented for its cliches yet sought out by audiences with longing in their hearts.
So why would a director known for Canadian cult movies and an actor known for global wizardry want to go out and try one? And how in the name of Meg Ryan do they succeed in making it fresh?
"I don't want to subvert the genre," said Michael Dowse of his new directorial effort, "What If." "I just want to subvert the bad cliches of the genre."
"A critic asked if we're trying to reinvent the romantic comedy, and I'm like, 'What would make you say that?' " said Daniel Radcliffe, star of "What If." "We just want to make a really good version of it."
That's a task perhaps easier said than done for the new film, which concerns well-meaning twentysomethings fumbling toward love. A lot has changed in the quarter-century since "When Harry Met Sally" set the modern standard for boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-are-thwarted-by-utterly contrasting-personalities, boy-and-girl-fall-in-love-on-New-Years-Eve-over-a-monologue-about-a-sandwich.
For years there was a series of increasingly cloying sappiness starring the likes of pre-McConnaissance Matthew McConaughey and pre-Oscarized Sandra Bullock. The tropes of the genre were firmly entrenched: barely holding-it-together woman and emotionally stunted man, kept temporarily apart by whatever obstacle is necessary to ensure the film doesn't end in the first five minutes.
Five years ago, "(500) Days of Summer" breathed fresh life into the rom-com by making the characters, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, more offbeat and the ending — in which guy and girl don't live happily ever after — more unexpected. Yet instead of ushering in a new era for the rom-com, it simply solidified another set of tropes, just now in the indie world.
The girl went from emotionally unkempt to charmingly idiosyncratic; the guy went from slick and unfeeling to wry and self-deprecating. (Their coupling was also Congressionally mandated to happen to, and over, a number of moody songs.) What had been meant as an antidote was in danger of becoming its own malady.
Into this complicated world comes "What If," a story about Wallace (Radcliffe), a med-school dropout a year removed from a breakup with a long-standing girlfriend, and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), a woman who would seem perfect for him but for the five-year relationship she's in with a copyright lawyer. Wallace and Chantry become friends even though Wallace wants more, and the two must work out a budding friendship — using, natch, some quick-fire dialogue —along with their respective romantic feelings.
In some ways the film is clearly traditional — like "When Harry Met Sally," it's about two people who put each other in the friend zone while struggling with whether they want more. And in some ways it's a post"(500) Days" anti-rom-com — what with a likably self-deprecating man and a charmingly idiosyncratic woman played by someone who even has the same first name as the woman who previously played the charmingly idiosyncratic woman.
"I wanted to make a movie that doesn't rely on stupid plot twists and people acting like sociopaths," Dowse said over coffee several hours before the film's premiere here Monday. "It's just a simple narrative structure. It's not someone pretending to have cancer so they can fall in love."
Adapted by the screenwriter Elan Mastai from a play called "Toothpaste and Cigars," "What If," which CBS Films acquired at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, looks to benefit from the fresh perspective of its very non-rom-commy creators.
Dowse is best known for the slacker "Fubar" films and the hockey-themed Goon" — an upending of the sports movie made about people paid to upend each other. Radcliffe is, well, Radcliffe, he of eight "Harry Potter" movies and excursions to horror cinema and Broadway.
"It wasn't like I said, 'I have to make a rom-com,'" Dowse said. "But I do like great genres that have become tired. It's like a distressed asset in real estate — the house is bad but the location is great, and if you level the house you can build something new."
"The only time I think in terms of genre is when I'm doing press," Radcliffe said. "But I like playing a character that isn't similar to me. I'm quite a direct guy and I would address the issues in the film. And Wallace isn't."
Still, he feels the film does serve as a counterpoint to many romantic comedies that preceded it.
"In so many cases, the sequence in rom-coms that show you why they love each other is reduced to a montage — off they go, for 10 minutes of walking and feeding ducks. It's not the rom-com we're tired of, I don't think. We're just subconsciously alienated by movies that dispense with humans acting like humans."
Will "What If" succeed? It's a high bar. Unlike nearly every other genre, after all, the modern-day rom-com seems to require several things at once.
"The challenge is making it both relatable and original," said "(500) Days" screenwriter Scott Neustadter. "And that's not easy."
The "What if" creators say that they believe the specificity of their film's personalities and dialogue transcend the fact that these are struggles we've seen before.
"We call it almost an ethical romance," Dowse said. "Nobody acts like a moron, and the obstacles are all really natural — they're internal."