In the new romantic comedy “What If,” director Michael Dowse wants to—at least, partly-- recapture the same kind of screwball, verbal sparring energy characteristic of classic Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn comedies such as “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday.”
The two young potential lovers, played by “Harry Potter” superstar Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, deliver their lines at rapid-fire speed, as if they've just done a few lines of coke each. Like with Hepburn and Grant, Radcliffe and Kazan are locked in a contest to see who can dominate the other using verbal wit. As a result of this, the picture moves at sprint through each scene, making the already brisk 90-minute run time feel even brisker. Luckily the movie doesn't overstay its welcome, but at the same time not very much is accomplished by the film’s end.
This is primarily because “What If” isn't nearly as nutty and unpredictable as either “Baby” or “Friday.” Instead it unfolds like your standard quirky twentysomething romantic comedy with very little surprises. Radcliffe plays Wallace, a medical school dropout who has—after breaking up with his girlfriend—become sour and pessimistic towards relationships in general. Kazan plays Chantry, an intelligent slightly kooky gal who doesn’t realize her full potential as an animator. At her job she’s turned down numerous promotions. One night at a party the two hit it off real well, except there’s one problem: she’s got a boyfriend. He’s a U.N. worker named Ben (Rafe Spall), a nice guy who’s also kind of dull. The kind of man who gets dumped in a romantic comedy so the central couple can come together.
Anyway, Wallace and Chantry decide to be friends, but for Wallace that’s not good enough. According to rom-com rules our leads must have friends who serve as advisors to the brewing relationship. Wallace has his free spirit pal Allan (Adam Driver) and Chantry has her feisty sister Dalia (Megan Park). The two serve their purpose: to crack more jokes and give bad advice. To his credit Adam Driver owns his role and often times steals the scenes he’s in.
Most of the humor is dialogue driven but there are a few inspired physical gags. For example, the scene when Wallace accidently pushes Ben out of a two-story window after he tries to mend his eye injury is so random and out of left field that works extremely well in a screwball comedy sort of way. Obviously, Radcliffe and Kazan aren’t on the same level as Hepburn and Grant when it comes to banter but that’s not exactly a fair comparison. Radcliffe continues to shine in his post Potter acting career, excelling at playing the charming cynic. Meanwhile Kazan has a loopy intelligence to her that makes her fun to watch. She may be weird and sometimes awkward but she’s never a ditz or a bimbo. Their chemistry makes the picture continually watchable.
Overall, “What If” is a fine romantic comedy but it doesn’t do much to innovate the genre. You won’t regret watching it, even though it’s admittedly slight.