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Witty 'What If' offers a new take on an old issue

POSTED: August 20, 2014 4:00 p.m.
Caitlin Cronenberg, CBS Films/

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in “What If.”

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Twenty-five years ago, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan debated whether a man can be friends with a woman he is attracted to in “When Harry Met Sally.” Their ultimate conclusion was no, but Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are here to revisit the question in “What If,” a romantic comedy that either suggests that we haven’t learned much over the last three decades or that relationships between men and women are always going to be complicated.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a med school dropout who is living with his sister in Toronto and neglecting his social life. One night, he drags himself out to a party with his best friend Allan (Adam Driver), who promptly hooks up with the love of his life. Wallace meets a fantastic girl named Chantry (Kazan), but she just happens to have a boyfriend. Isn’t that how things usually go?

Once Chantry drops the word “boyfriend,” Wallace writes her off, tossing her phone number into the wind as he sits mournfully on his sister’s rooftop. But fate intervenes at a late-night screening of “The Princess Bride,” and before long, Wallace and Chantry are neck-deep in a contemporary experiment in platonic male-female friendship.

What follows is just unpredictable enough to remain interesting, and some clever writing from Elan Mastai gives director Michael Dowse’s film a big boost. “What If” probably won’t be giving “When Harry Met Sally” a run for its money on anyone’s all-time list, but it does do a good job of encapsulating the highs, lows and confusing in-betweens of dating in 2014. (Though, thankfully, it avoids the kind of emphasis on texting and other technology that would date it in 10 years or so.)

While Wallace and Chantry’s relationship remains ambiguous to them, everyone else in their lives can see the writing on their wall. Allan and his girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) plot to get the budding lovebirds together, while Chantry’s sister Dalia (Megan Park) plots to use Wallace for her own devious needs.

Then there’s Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), an up-and-coming employee of the United Nations who just happens to be dealing with some pressing international career options. His suspicious encounters with Wallace produce some genuinely funny moments.

Radcliffe and Kazan are appropriately quirky and awkward in a 21st-century way, but the writing is really what will sell or kill “What If” for potential audiences. It’s clever and dry and pumped full of pop-culture wit, but it’s also pretty vulgar and sex-obsessed. Though strangely, as preoccupied as the characters are with sex, the fact that the leads are trying to keep their relationship platonic bypasses a lot of today’s usual onscreen sexual content.

It’s also interesting to note that “What If” is actually set in Toronto instead of just filmed there. The sum total is not unlike the “Fool’s Gold” sandwich Wallace describes to Chantry near the beginning of the film: indulgent, a little gratuitous, sort of depressing, yet oddly compelling and pretty funny, too.

“What If” is rated PG-13, only crossing into R-rated territory with a single use of the F-word. But the film features consistent profanity and vulgar sexual dialogue, some fleeting silhouetted male and female nudity (a discreetly shot skinny-dipping scene), and some violent content (including a graphic scene from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” that Wallace watches on TV with his nephew).

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.

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