The question raised in the new romantic comedy What If is similar to the one that frames the titular duo in When Harry Met Sally — can a man and a woman really be “just friends,” without the sex part getting in the way? Except in this version, the age-old dilemma comes with a twist: can a man and a woman be friends if one or both is attracted to the other? The second question is much easier to answer: no; at least, not for the long haul.
If hidden motives are involved, then the platonic relationship will eventually end, whether that be for the better, with friendship blooming into a mutual romance, or for the worse, resulting in hurt feelings on both sides and, in what is the most likely but also the most painful scenario, losing the friendship and the person in one fell swoop.
Enter What If‘s adorable will-they-or-won’t-they pairing of Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan). Wallace is a med school dropout living with his older sister and her young son, jaded from a cheating ex and a string of failed relationships before that. Chantry is an animator who shares a gorgeous apartment with her strapping longtime boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall, doing his best in an inconsistently written role). But when Wallace and Chantry meet at a party thrown by Chantry’s cousin and Wallace’s best friend Allan (Adam Driver), they share an immediate connection. Their banter is less witty than it is based on sarcasm and gross-out humor; so, more realistic. When Chantry gives Wallace her number at the end of the night, she casually alludes to her boyfriend probably “wondering where I am.” This is also realistic; at the word “boyfriend,” one can practically feel Wallace’s heart taking a nosedive into his shoes.
Then, one chance meeting later, they decide that they can, in fact, be just friends. They enjoy spending time together, they both like long walks and The Princess Bride, so why not? What could possibly go wrong?
Throughout the film, Wallace and Chantry are continually toeing that fine line many of us have crossed or not crossed, regretted crossing or wish we had; and for that reason alone, it’s hard not to root for them. There is no “bad guy” in the situation; they both make mistakes, and they both call each other out on them. They both lie to themselves about what their relationship really means, and in hiding these feelings, lie to each other, too. Of course, the truth has to come out eventually, but not in the traditional way audiences who have cut their teeth on Nora Ephron rom-coms might expect.
Director Michael Dowse does a lot of things right here. Instead of disguising Canada to look like New York or LA, he sets the story in Toronto. Instead of making Chantry a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her sister Dalia (Megan Park) the levelheaded voice of reason, Dalia is perhaps the more complicated character, vacillating between unlikable and likable again, while Chantry is the more mature and responsible one.
Also, big moments do not always get the payoff that is anticipated. Wallace flies to Dublin for a grand declaration of love and gets punched out instead. What should have been a romantic night on the beach turns uncomfortable in a heartbeat.
Sure, plenty of predictable twists and genre tropes remain, like Chantry calling Ben for phone sex at the most inopportune moment, or Ben whipping out his cooking knife when meeting Wallace for the first time. Radcliffe still hasn’t quite shed his geeky Potter persona (“You don’t know how to teleport, do you?” Wallace asks Chantry at one point, which I can only assume is an in-joke) and Kazan is perhaps the most twee love interest since Zoey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer (she is an animator whose art comes to life when she’s daydreaming, she wears berets, her name is Chantry) but they are undeniably cute together. And screenwriter Elan Mastai, gets bonus points for acute, natural dialogue and little epiphanies that actually resonate.
Take for example, the cliché of a surprise wedding at an engagement party with the simple, poignant assessment of the couple, and love itself, that Wallace gives in his Best Man speech: “It’s very easy to be cynical about love, but this is hard.”
Still, what may be What If‘s greatest strength — the couple does not start out hating each other, which can not be said about the vast majority of rom-coms post-When Harry Met Sally — also presents a problem. Wallace is romantically attracted to Chantry from the moment they meet, and that attraction never wavers. Despite what he tells himself and others, it is painfully clear throughout that he is just waiting for the boyfriend to be out of the picture.
Chantry’s side of the situation recalls How I Met Your Mother‘s “Mermaid Theory”: spending too much time with an attractive person, regardless of whether one or both of you is currently coupled up, will eventually cause that person to become more attractive to you. Even walruses, i.e. people who may be cute and cuddly but not the type you would normally go for, start to look like “mermaids” after a while.
But the main problem with What If is that it’s near impossible to walrus someone who has been your mermaid from the start. In Wallace’s eyes, Chantry never leaves the pedestal she is placed on, even when complications arise and are just as quickly (and a bit too conveniently) resolved. It would have been much more interesting to see them change roles at some point, or to show Chantry seeing Wallace in a new light just as his light for her is fading.
Ultimately though, What If goes for the heartstrings, not the jugular. And perhaps that’s just as well; optimism, even the romantic kind, is underrated.