New take on the When Harry Met Sally formula is just charming enough.
By Max Weiss. Posted on August 19, 2014, 11:56 am
If When Harry Met Sally famously asked the question, “Can a man and woman be friends?” then What If asks a slightly different one: “Can a man and woman just be friends when one of them is secretly pining after the other?”
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), still nursing a broken heart one year after a messy breakup, meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party thrown by his best friend and her cousin Allan (Adam Driver). He’s writing deep thoughts with refrigerator magnets (“love is stupid monkeys dancing in a slapstick hurricane”) when she sidles up next to him. They bond. She’s the first girl he has felt a connection with since the breakup.
He walks her home, feeling giddy with the prospect of this new love, and then she drops the “b” word: “boyfriend.” Namely, she has one. And it’s serious—they’re living together.
Wallace, who had taken Chantry’s number (she has scrawled it on the back of whimsical self-portrait; she’s a cartoonist) with the promise of calling her, later lets that number waft into the wind: It flies away, cartoon-style, with butterflies and the like—my first sign that perhaps this film was too twee for words.
Of course, Chantry and Wallace meet again—at a screening of The Princess Bride (my second sign that perhaps this film was…well, you get the gist)—and realize they have too much in common to NOT be friends.
So they give the friendship thing a try. They even shake on it.
All the while, Chantry thinks she loves her boyfriend (and maybe she does), but she and Wallace keep getting closer. A sense of inevitability sets in.
There was a lot I liked about this film, specifically the performances. (Can we all just agree at this point that every film is improved by the presence of hipster Stanley Kowalski Adam Driver?) But, for me at least, it never totally worked. Let’s go back to that original magnet poem that brought Chantry and Wallace together: “love is stupid monkeys dancing in a slapstick hurricane”. We know that the poem is meant to be clever and witty, a sign of Wallace’s quirkiness and sensitivity. But is it really? If I met that guy at a party, I’d think, "Dude, get over yourself."
That same sensation permeated the whole film for me. Wallace and Chantry have snappy banter that’s meant to indicate their amazing connection, but I found their conversations contrived. One, about the 40 pounds of stool found in Elvis Presley colon after he died (I kid you not), seems to go on forever. Likewise, when they have a fight on the beach—rascally Allan has snatched their clothing after a group skinny dipping session—it felt forced, like there was a placeholder in the script that read: [WALLACE AND CHANDRY FIGHT HERE.]
Kazan and Radcliffe have great chemistry (having just seen an alleged romance where the leads have zero chemistry, I’m particularly grateful for this) and they’re both adorable, without ever succumbing to the film’s tendency toward whimsy. It’s easy to root for them.
What If is charming enough. And it fulfills that need we all have this time of the year to see actual adults up on screen approximating our earth behavior. But it has a slight case of Tries Too Hard-itis.
Max Weiss is the managing editor of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.