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 “The F Word,” a romantic comedy about a young platonic couple dealing with mutual sexual tension, he aspires to reach similarly naughty territory. Yet despite formidable performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as the duo in question, “The F Word” never comes close to realizing the expletive-fueled comedy implied by its title. 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.
That being said, there are certainly worse versions of the conventions dominating “The F Word,” which draws its material 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 is evident from the first scene and evolves quickly when the duo run into each other shortly afterward at a screening “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 has him over for dinner. Playing up the nerdy likability factor that gave his Harry Potter persona such an iconic profile, Radcliffe amusingly pleads his 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, “The F Word” 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, “The F Word” strikes the note of a black comedy in which seemingly good-natured people gradually become more self-destructive.
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Instead, however, they’re just good-natured people. While Wallace and Chantry hang out more and more, “The F Word” 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, while 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 a 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 commit to their roles enough to give their considerably lightweight characters fairly believable, they’re stuck in a severely underwritten situation exacerbated by an annoying pop-heavy soundtrack.
It’s worth noting that both actors are at crucial stages of their careers: Radcliffe seems to be working in as many modes as possible to free himself from his “Harry Potter” roots while Kazan’s profile is steadily rising. With “The F Word,” they manage to sustain the material in certain key scenes but can’t liven it up. After the usual spats and sudden romantic trips across the globe in which central characters confront each other about their feelings, “The F Word” recedes into unimaginative sweetness.
Yet it’s a tough to critique these inoffensively average set of circumstances without deriding the genre as a whole. The movie primarily frustrates by doing nothing fresh. Careening toward an overly neat and tender resolution, “The F Word” lacks the gall to let its uncoordinated characters wind up victims of their situation. “All this love shit’s complicated,” Allan tells Wallace, verbalizing a challenge the movie capably sets up but doesn’t make an effort to sort out.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up by CBS Films out of Toronto, “The F Word” may generate solid box office returns in limited release due to Radcliffe’s star power and the commercial nature of its genre, but seems unlikely to have long-term theatrical prospects.