“What If” revels in a trendy style of conversation rarely seen onscreen.
It’s the interplay between friends who talk in escalating chains of jokey sarcasm. These witty fugues can go on for minutes — much different from Hollywood’s typical setup/punch line format.
The captivating Canadian comedy about friends juggling romance and careers establishes this patter early. Med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a Brit living in Toronto who recently broke up with his cheating girlfriend. Still heartbroken, he reluctantly attends a party where he passes time rearranging refrigerator poetry magnets.
His opening salvo: “Love is stupid.”
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Then he’s joined at the fridge by Chantry (adorable Zoe Kazan), a talented animator who isn’t going to leave a bummer phrase like that alone. By the end of their oddball conversation (see above), they’ve extended the sentence: “Love is stupid monkeys dancing in a slapstick hurricane.”
Their chemistry is undeniable, but Chantry lives with her long-term boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall). She doesn’t want to lead Wallace on. So maybe they could just be friends?
That’s the crux of “What If,” an indie that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival under the title “The F Word” — F as in friend. Screenwriter Elan Mastai adapted it from the T.J. Dawe and Mike Rinaldi play “Toothpaste and Cigars.” None of these titles hints at the clever wordplay.
Director Michael Dowse (“Goon”) coaxes a fine performance out of Radcliffe, portraying a man whose charm coexists with his disarming awkwardness. Kazan (the writer/star of “Ruby Sparks”) manages to be both mousy and doe-eyed. She also radiates an underlying confidence, like she really belongs headlining a role that might normally star an A-lister. (Kazan hails from a line of filmmakers that includes her grandfather, Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan.)
A second couple introduce more edge to the proceedings. Adam Driver (HBO’s “Girls”) plays Allan, Wallace’s old roommate, who meets Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) at the same party. Their dive into a consequence-free romance provides the counterpoint to the “just friends” behavior of the leads. There’s an amusing running joke that this couple bond over their mutual obsession with poop talk.
As Nicole says, “Love is dirty, baby. Sometimes it’s downright filthy.”
One of the most memorable scenes finds the quartet discussing the man hours that supposedly went into naming Cool Whip. They challenge one another to come up with better names, which inevitably get more bizarre and convoluted. Later, Chantry recruits Ben and his stuffy lawyer friends to duplicate the challenge … with dull results. Thus, she realizes the disconnect between her boyfriend and herself.
(It evokes the scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen cooks lobsters at home with his latest date, failing to re-create the same thrill he shared with Diane Keaton.)
Sure, there’s a lot of talk in this movie — no surprise from a project that began as a play. But it’s not the chatter that sometimes keeps the audience at a distance; it’s the inertia of the main characters. At times you want to grab Wallace and Chantry and shake them into making a concrete decision. Yet, this “will they or won’t they” aspect is also what sustains the nervous tension.
Ultimately, “What If” hinges on whether you care if Wallace and Chantry will hook up. The filmmakers do everything possible to ensure you do.
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:42