Canadian director Michael Dowse’s movies tend to revolve around vulgar, garrulous individuals driven to ridiculous extremes, from the hotheaded hockey player in 2011’s “Goon” to the headbangers at the center of “Fubar” and “Fubar II.” With “What If,” a romantic comedy about a young platonic couple dealing with mutual sexual tension, he aspires to similarly naughty territory. Yet despite formidable performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as the duo in question, “What If” never comes close to realizing the expletive-fueled comedy implied by its original title, “The F Word.” More blatantly commercial in tone, it tries to have some bite to its will-they-or-won’t-they scenario but ultimately winds up toothless.
But there are certainly worse versions of the conventions dominating this plot, which draws from the play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. Radcliffe plays newly single Toronto-based pre-med student Wallace, who meets doe-eyed animator Chantry (Kazan) at a party thrown by close friend Allan (Adam Driver), Chantry’s cousin. Their attraction quickly evolves when the duo run into each other shortly afterward at a screening of “The Princess Bride,” but there’s naturally a hangup: Chantry’s in a serious relationship with her live-in boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), a high powered lawyer with a suave presence that leaves Wallace without any option other than to settle with just being Chantry’s “friend.”
Of course, there’s more to his motives than that, and Ben quickly confronts the disingenuous Brit behind
Chantry’s back when the couple invites him over for dinner. Playing up the nerdy likability factor that made him the ideal Harry Potter, Radcliffe amusingly pleads innocence. But when Ben leaves town for an extended business trip, Wallace spends more and more time around Chantry, exacerbating their shared attraction and leading to expectations that things could turn physical at any moment.
To its credit, “What If” staves off this possibility for much of the running time, allowing us to experience the same mixed feelings about the burgeoning attraction as the characters. Yet the strongest moment of the story arrives early on and sets the bar too high: When the aforementioned dinner party culminates with a terrific burst of slapstick energy, as Wallace accidentally knocks Ben out a window, “What If” briefly hints at black comedy territory, where seemingly good-natured people gradually become more self-destructive.
Instead, however, it turns out these are just good-natured people wandering through an underwhelming riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” As Wallace and Chantry hang out more and more, “What If” gradually settles into a series of disappointing twists. As Allan, a characteristically foul-mouthed Driver provides ample one-liners as he initially discourages his pal from getting the wrong idea about his future with Chantry before shifting direction. Allan’s wife provides a similarly wicked energy (“Love is dirty baby…sometimes, it’s downright filthy”).
Together they might have made a better central couple. Despite some throwaway punchlines about masturbation and one prolonged scene that finds Wallace and Chantry accidentally spending the night together on a camping trip in the nude, they’re barely given the chance to get feisty. While Radcliffe and Kazan give their considerably lightweight characters a fair amount of credibility, they’re stuck with severely underwritten situations exacerbated by an annoying pop-heavy soundtrack.
It’s worth noting that both actors are at crucial stages of their careers: Radcliffe’s post-“Potter” career has been wildly diverse, while Kazan’s profile is steadily rising beyond her theater roots. With “What If” they manage to sustain the material in certain key scenes even if they can’t liven up the whole picture. After the usual spats and sudden romantic trips across the globe in which central characters confront each other about their feelings, “What If” recedes into unimaginative sweetness.
But it’s tough to dismiss such an inoffensive routine without deriding the genre as a whole. The movie is only a letdown because it lacks originality. Careening toward a neat finale, “What If” lacks the audacity to let its characters face hard times. “All this love shit’s complicated,” Allan tells Wallace, establishing a challenge the movie capably sets up but doesn’t make an effort to sort out.
A version of this review ran during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. “What If” opens in limited release this Friday and expands nationwide on August 22.