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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in the indie rom-com "What If," now playing.

"What If" is a charming rom-com worth falling for


The romantic comedy genre has taken quite the beating over the past couple of years. Most of the offerings that come out of Hollywood – rare to begin with nowadays – tend to be forced, contrived, chemistry-free affairs. The once-profitable genre found some solace and success in the indie world with unique, charming, creative stuff like "500 Days of Summer," but they soon fell victim to the new clichés – quirk for the sake of whimsical quirk – just as bad as the old ones.

No one will ever claim "What If," the latest indie rom-com effort, to be an artistic and creative epiphany. It features many of the classic genre conventions, and its basic premise plays a lot like an updated riff of "When Harry Met Sally."

Still, thanks to a cute cast and a script that gracefully brings some fresh, sweet life to some seemingly old, fell-worn tropes (also: poop jokes … so many poop jokes), "What If" turns out to be a rare modern rom-com worth swooning over.

Harry Potter himself Daniel Radcliffe stars as Wallace, a mopey young med school dropout loitering around Toronto with his squishy romantic heart protected by an thick armor of cynicism, developed at a young age during his parents' messy divorce and hardened after a recent breakup. However, he still smiles like a fool all the way through "The Princess Bride," one of his favorite films, so there's clearly still hope.

Hope arrives in the form of Chantry (Zoe Kazan, "Ruby Sparks"), an animator because of course she's an animator; what rom-com would be complete without one of the leads working some cutesy artsy specialty job. The two meet-cute at a party, exchanging charmingly awkward small talk around refrigerator word magnets before heading out together. So far, so adorable. There's just one super tiny hang-up: Chantry has a long-term boyfriend (Rafe Spall, looking like a tall giant among small children).

Despite some hesitation, lonely Wallace decides to give being friends with Chantry a try and figure out what to do with his secret pining for her along the way. As time goes by, however, their obvious connection only grows – especially when her boyfriend heads on an extended business trip to Dublin – leaving them both uncertain of what to do with their complicated feelings. As "When Harry Met Sally … " asked all those years ago, can men and women be friends without sex and love getting in the way? Well, it wouldn't be much of a rom-com if the answer was a resounding yes.

Like two people out on a first date, "What If" starts off trying a bit too hard, insisting on its own cleverness and charm. It doesn't take long, however, for director Michael Dowse (who also directed the hockey cult hit "Goon") and Elan Mastai's screenplay to start working together, making some sparks and falling into a nice loose-limbed rhythm.

Dowse and Mastai are thankfully aided by an equally loose-limbed cast. Still making his way out from his wizarding shadow, Radcliffe makes for quite an appealing lead, both romantically and comically. He's suitably sharp with the script's quick banter and hits it off quite nicely and tenderly with Kazan. She's just as easy with the cute, witty jokes – even just watching her drunkenly dolphin kick into bed is a laugh – but she also delicately hints at Chantry's confused, often suppressed emotions. Together, the two generate genuine chemistry, include several moments worthy of heart fluttering.

As expected from most rom-coms, the supporting characters get to steal much of the show. "Girls" veteran and future "Star Wars VII" star Adam Driver scores the most laughs as Wallace's best friend and Chantry's cousin, an unrestrained id bellowing about sex nachos and delivering less-than-brilliant dating advice. His snappy female counterpart, played by Mackenzie Davis ("That Awkward Moment"), and Megan Park's turn as Chantry's playfully catty sister/BFF are just as entertaining.

Together, the sharp young cast digs into Mastai's screenplay, which manically jumps around to mostly hilarious, often winningly irreverent conversations about alternate names for Cool Whip, poop, monstrously unhealthy sandwiches and more poop (honestly, the film's fecal obsession is almost Farrelly Brothers-esque; luckily, it's all more clever than crass).

All the while, "What If" gives the love story its due, keeping it sweet and natural. Even after romantic rivals are introduced – they're a little off but far from villains – the movie stays mostly clear of artificial dramas, instead keeping its attention on the complicated, clumsy human emotions in play. For all of its rocketing around, the emotions and the relationships – the true heart of the matter – still feel like they get to breathe, throwing in little tender moments like three people sitting on a couch, wordlessly bonded by family and broken hearts.

Sure, the movie can be conventional and a touch predictable – as one expects from the genre. Many of its story elements – the comic relief best friends, the copious music montages – are romantic comedy mainstays, and its insights into love and the fine line between a friendship and a relationship aren't exactly fresh. The film sometimes tries a bit too hard for whimsy as well, most notably with some animation that was a twee indie cliché five years ago and hasn't grown any more creative or unique in the interim.

As with true love, though, it's easy to overlook the movie's minor flaws and instead be won over by its abundant, cuddly charms. "What If" doesn't rewrite the rom-com playbook, but it's still quite a pleasure – a tragically rare one – to see a film that promises romance and comedy and delivers plenty of both with loveable ease.



Theaters and showtimes for What If
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