Movie Review: Friendship frustrates romance in ‘What If’

Friends without benefits: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in
Friends without benefits: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in "What If."

‘What If’
★★ 1/2

We’re supposed to be rooting for the young potential paramours in “What If” to get together, but there’s a good chance you’ll actually find it more of a meh, shrug-the-shoulders situation.

It just takes such a painfully long time for them to figure out the obvious.

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to put distance between himself and “Harry Potter”) is a med-school dropout recovering from a broken heart. Chantry (Zoe Kazan, so good in the high-concept romcom “Ruby Sparks”) is an animator in a long-term relationship. They meet cute at a party and feel an instant attraction but settle for being friends when Wallace learns about Ben (Rafe Spall), Chantry’s attorney/fledgling diplomat boyfriend, who complicates matters by not being a major jerk.

That’s basically the way things stand for the next 90 minutes or so in “What If,” which was much better off with its original title “The F Word” — “F “meaning friends. There are a couple of complications along the way: Chantry trying to fix Wallace up with her randy sister and Ben leaving a tantalizing vacancy when he accepts a six-month posting to Dublin. Mostly, though, if you’ve seen “When Harry Met Sally. . . ,” you’ll know precisely what to expect. Though in this case it comes with roughly twice as many wisecracks.

There are a couple of off-putting things about the dialogue in “What If.” For one, both Wallace and Chantry have a fixation on poo humor, and a particularly unfortunate fascination with the amount of feces found in Elvis’s colon post-mortem. But the real problem is that both of them turn out to be quipsters instead of the usual romcom quota of just one person making with the jokes—Billy Crystal for instance.

So while both of them are hyper-witty, neither is especially amusing. “He’s not funny, he’s banter-y,” Chantry says of Wallace, though she really shouldn’t be pointing any fingers.

At least they’re both clever, though, as is “What If” when it comes to having fun with romantic-comedy conventions. Wallace and Chantry meeting cute twice, for example, not just once. Three times if you count what happens during a twist on the typical climactic airport scene. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But Canadian director Michael Dowse, who also directed the so-so ’80s nostalgia fest “Take Me Home Tonight,” keeps Wallace and Chantry so busy being clever that there’s not much time for them to connect on an emotional level. That’s a shame, because when their hearts take over, as they do in a couple of scenes that really sizzle with sexual tension, “What If” generates some serious romance.

And no references to Elvis’s colon are required.

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