Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What If (2014) – Review

Review: What If is a generic romantic comedy, and yet it is highly enjoyable, sweet, and quite funny.

The film is about Wallace and Chantry. Wallace is a young med school dropout who is very cynical about love after his relationship failed with his latest girlfriend. Chantry is a young animator who is happily in a relationship with Ben (a successful U.N. negotiator); they have been together for five years. Wallace and Chantry meet at a mutual friend’s (Ben’s best friend Allan is also Chantry’s cousin) house party and immediately hit it off. Initially Wallace is uninterested in being friends with Chantry, despite their chemistry, because she has a boyfriend, but eventually decides that having her in his life, even as a friend only, is better than the alternative. The problem is, however, that regardless of intention, feelings are feelings and Wallace is in love with Chantry – them becoming close friends only making it more apparent and worse. So, the big question becomes: will Wallace risk it all and try to make something happen? Meanwhile, Chantry is happy with Ben, but there is an undeniable spark with Wallace. She feels something for him too, but she is with Ben. It is complicated for her too.

Let me start with what is all too obvious about What If. A common symptom of the genre is for romantic comedies to all adhere to the same formulaic structure. We as savvy consumers all already know how this story will play out, down to the precise plot points, before the opening credit even roll. Thusly, What If is at a disadvantage from the beginning. Of course it is going to be painfully generic – the genre and its consumers demand it, which then lead to the question of which genre classic will it most resemble. Without thinking about it too much, the first film that comes to mind is When Harry Met Sally… Not a bad film to want to emulate. So, the real success of What If hinges on whether or not it can make us fall in love with Wallace and Chantry, taking stock in their courtship and hoping that in the end they come together. To this, I would say that yes the film is successful.

Sure it is generic, but so are almost all modern romantic comedies. What If is one of the good ones. Romantic comedies now have sort of started to become films that try to differentiate themselves by having crazy premises or wacky characters or scenes of extreme situations. What If does not succumb to this annoying trend. It is a simple story about a boy and a girl who meet each other, like each other, but there is an obstacle that must be overcome before they can be together.

All that said, however, What If also has a very strange comedic undercurrent. Wallace and Chantry have wonderful chemistry because they find the same weird stuff interesting. When Wallace first meets Chantry, he makes a joke about collecting the pubic hair of all the women at the party. In almost every case that is a conversation killing statement, but Chantry is not taken aback by it and even thinks it is funny. At this moment, they should know as we the audience know that they are supposed to be together. They continue throughout the film to find the same odd stuff appealing and interesting, when really no one else ever would. All this gives the film a bizarre sense of humor that is also strangely refreshing. The film is not making the same boring jokes that every other genre film makes, and it is not inventing madcap situations for its characters to navigate for comedic purposes. In fact, the one potentially stand-out crazy situation that Wallace and Chantry find themselves in plays as a much more dramatic scene than it does for comedy. Again, the film rejects the stupidity of modern romantic comedies in favor of the classic in which characters we were supposed to care about got to know each other and fell in love with each other through conversation (as we fell in love with them).

Thus, What If comes down to its characters. Director Michael Dowse does a great job with them. Wallace and Chantry are given time to grow together and apart, and the audience does fall for them and does take stock in their potential relationship. Dowse, though, does stick to the formulaic structure on character as well. Wallace’s best friend Alan and his girlfriend Nicole are the typical loud, energetic comedic relief, while Chantry’s best friend (who is also her sister) Dalia plays the equally typical supportive friend role. And of course there is a scene in which Chantry has to push Dalia at Wallace because she already has a boyfriend and Wallace is single and not doing so would raise awkward suspicions even though secretly she is uncomfortable with the idea of them being together because subconsciously she likes Wallace (whether she fully knows it or not). Like I said, this is formulaic. With Ben, Dowse could have on one of two ways, the boring way would have seen Ben as a bad boyfriend to Chantry, making Wallace seem all the more a better choice, but Ben is a good boyfriend to Chantry. He is loving and has a good job. But, of course, there is a slight complication. Ben must move away for his job leaving his relationship with Chantry to exist as a long-distance relationship – which allows her to spend more time with Wallace. Here again, Dowse could have taken the easy road and Ben could have changed and moved on from Chantry, cheating on her and so on. But, he remains faithful and loving, though his ambitions for himself do somewhat deviate with what Chantry wants for herself. Although, if she really does love him and want him, they could make it work. Ben is not really the obstacle to Wallace and Chantry being together.

Dowse never gives Wallace an easy in with Chantry. This is what works about What If. Often in life, things are not easy. Yes, there is still a fairytale aspect to the film – it is a romantic comedy after all – but life gets in the way, just like it does with us. Because it is difficult, their inevitable union feels more satisfying and earned (something that is almost never true anymore in the genre). What If is good because it cares about its characters; it loves them, and in turn we love them too. And on a side note, it is hard not to love a film that visually references both The Princess Bride and The Thing.

What If is a good romantic comedy that features a cast of likable (be them off-beat) characters. It is refreshing in that it feels more like a classic entry in the genre than the boring and usually terrible nonsense we have come to expect today from the genre that we all still love because of those great old films and the few good ones that trickle through now.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Michael Dowse’s more mainstream directing career got off to a thud with the fairly terrible throwaway comedy Take Me Home Tonight (a film expected to succeed off the charm of the 1980s alone without a serviceable script of any kind, squandering its talented cast), after he made the successful small films Fubar and It’s All Gone Peter Tong. Dowse then returned to Canada’s film industry and has made two great comedies. The sports comedy Goon is one of 2012’s hidden gems and this year’s What If is among the best romantic comedies of the year so far. The success of Goon and What If stem from Dowse’s ability to garner good work from his actors, while also honing in on what is working comically.

What If features a soundtrack full of reasonably good contemporary music, but it mostly just fades into the background. Composer A.C. Newman’s score fills in the gaps and supports the tone and dramatic moments well. Rogier Stoffers’s cinematography works quite well. The film is visually and stylistically very straightforward; however, Stoffers takes advantage of the film’s locations (Toronto and Dublin) to bring a certain visual beauty in support of the budding relationship between Wallace and Chantry. Ethan Tobman’s production design is also fairly straightforward. All the sets are grounded in reality, though the art department does provide some interesting animations in support of the whimsical/odd undercurrent to the narrative (because romantic comedies are fairytales).

The cast is very likable and are all very good in the film. Oona Chaplin, Jemima Rooper, and Rafe Spall are good in small supporting roles. Mackenzie Davis has a fantastically fun energy as Nicole. Her personality is both infectious and a bit overwhelming. She makes a perfect foil for Alan, and yet still has enough to feel like a full character herself. Adam Driver, as he is in everything I have seen him in, is great as Alan. He just cannot help but draw focus. His energy is so dynamic. He is funny and intense. Megan Park gives a potentially breakthrough performance as Dalia. She is funny and a little goofy, but never feels anything less than a fully formed character (even in a formulaic genre role). Zoe Kazan is having a strong year making good indie romances (she is also great in this year’s In Your Eyes). Here, playing Chantry, she easily could have been the typical whimsy waif set upon the Earth to rescue Wallace from his cynicism, but she is having none of that. Chantry is a strong woman who has her own ambitions and desires. If this were a character drama, it would have been just as satisfying to see her go off alone facing her new life, confident that she would strive. Kazan is hard not to fall in love with in the film, especially when we are rooting for Chantry and Wallace to end up together. I hope she can continue to find good roles in good movies. Daniel Radcliffe is very good as Wallace. To some extent, when the film begins, he is playing kind of a loser. But, his charm and wit work ever in his favor – and there is no denying the great chemistry he has with Kazan (which is really the lifeblood of the film – as it would be with any film dependent on its leads). As is true with all of these actors, Radcliffe finds what works about his character and succeeds at creating a full person around it. He is likable, but unafraid to be a bit weird too.

Summary & score: What If exemplifies what good romantic comedies are: it is funny, it is cute, it has real drama, we love the characters, and while it may be generic it does not matter because it gets everything else right. 7/10

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