Using Only the Power of Great Banter, 'What If' Has Breathed New Life Into the Entire Rom-Com Genre
It’s inevitable that What If will forever be called the Millennial When Harry Met Sally. You know why? Because that’s exactly what it is. This movie is quite possibly the best romantic comedy of the 2000s, or at least a solid contender for the title, which it earned not by flipping the genre on its head or by inventing new forms, but by doing the old forms really, really well. It is aggressively adorable, but very smart. Sure, it’s predictable (what, are they NOT going to end up together?) and moderately formulaic, and, yes, twee enough to include cartoon bird-women occasionally fluttering across the screen, but still centers around two characters who are undeniably charming and perfect enough for each other that you can’t help but actively root for them. This movie is fun and charming and— yes, I’ll use the dread word itself—adorable. And by embracing all those things and not fighting the genre it so solidly lives within, it manages to be a truly fantastic movie.
Wallace and Chantry (and the award for Rom-Commiest Names Ever goes to…), played to gross levels of perfection by Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, are the quintessential movie couple. They have their meet cute: at a party, in front of the refrigerator where he’s making depressed post-breakup fridge magnet poetry. They have their kooky friends (Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis) who double as the lust-at-first-and-every-sight, constantly grinding foils opposite which this romance plays out. Because even though these two clearly belong together (and, oh, they do — for people who love words, as I know you lot do, there’s no greater connection than the magical, easy-flowing, quick-witted banter these two have going on), they are relegated to Friendship Status. (In fact, the original title of the movie was the far superior The F Word.) And the reasons are sound for them, if not for us. Wallace is in relationship recovery, and trying a chronic cynical anti-romanticism on for size. But the real wedge between them is Chantry’s current long-term relationship with her boyfriend Ben, who is just enough of a d-bag for us to not feel bad rooting against him, but a decent enough guy that it doesn’t diminish her character for staying with him for so long. And even as we know, without a doubt, how this story will end, it’s Chantry’s unreasonably strict adherence to her moral absolute principles that keep her relationship with Wallace platonic, and drives the 100 minutes of will they/won’t they friend-struggle. Actually, in a much-needed addition to the modern romance genre, both characters’ views of relationships, and the limitations they eagerly place on themselves, are firmly rooted in the awful, infidelity-ridden relationships of their parents.
And that is where the real beauty of this movie lies. They took an existing formula, and made a real, relatable, modern story out of it. It’s tempting to hold Driver and Davis up as the Best Part of the Movie, because their tongue-filled relationship is truly wonderful, and his line from the trailer, about nachos and sex? It’s just as hilarious within the movie itself. But as sexy and hysterical and charismatic as those two are, they are not The Best. No, that title belongs to Zoe Kazan. Daniel Radcliffe is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. He is charming and quick and continuing his trend of showing us his butt until we take him seriously as a real muggle actor. But Kazan has taken the role of romantic female lead and lovingly morphed it into a real woman. This is no manic pixie dream girl. Her choices may not always be the best, but they are always with her own self in mind, and they are absolutely believable as those of a smart, romantic, possibly confused but definitely realistic 20-something woman. And yes, much of that credit is due to Elan Mastai, the screenwriter, and T.J. Dawe who wrote the play the movie is based on. They created a wonderful character, and a perfect pairing, but these are sure to be held up as career-defining performances for both Radcliffe (breaking out) and Kazan (breaking in). They’re too remarkable not to be.