Regardless of the clockwork nature of the genre's output and devotion to formula, one of the redeemable things about romantic dramedies can be found in how each one makes observations on the ways relationships change with time, whether it's by intent or simply in the DNA of the script's setting. They all fit together into a continuing jigsaw puzzle, even the weaker ones, revealing hints of progression in gender dynamics and the abandonment (and perseverance) of stereotypes; some, naturally, are more successful at this than others. What If doesn't have that many innovative traits in its take on the underdog rom-com, relying instead on kitschy dialogue that frequently comes across as parading its eccentricity. That said, its valiant depiction of the playful banter, modern professional life, and the line between kinship and chemistry snaps together into a spry, satisfying piece of the puzzle about "the friend zone", driven by a convincing performance from Daniel Radcliffe as a despondent idealist.
After his life spiraled out of control, losing his girlfriend and his career ambitions, Wallace (Radcliffe) essentially escaped from the world for a year. The initial scene in What If marks his cathartic jump back into a social life, commemorating the occasion by hopping into a party thrown by his friend, Allen (Adam Driver), to which he makes a connection with a smart, reserved animator, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), also his friend's cousin. On their walk home, Chantry reveals that she already has a boyfriend, a successful (and therefore busy) international lawyer. Despite that, the pair land on the idea of building a friendship instead of going their separate ways, leading to a platonic relationship that drudges up the expected inquiries among their friends about what they mean to one another. As life complicates around them, from work opportunities to the prospect of dealing with a long-distance relationship, Wallace and Chantry struggle with figuring out exactly what their feelings towards one another entails as well.
With a few adjustments, What If could easily be confused for an update to When Harry Met Sally, hinged on the eternal question of whether members of the opposite sex can be friends if they have chemistry and are open about their romantic lives. Things have changed since the '80s, of course, notably in the open rapport between the sexes and the comfort level of men and women contently existing in the friend zone, so there's a worthwhile reason for screenwriter Elan Mastai to rework those ideas through T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi's play, "Toothpaste and Cigars". Wallace and Chantry's relationship builds around idiosyncratic banter about odd sandwiches, vocab magnets, and excrement humor that tries a bit too hard to be quirky and modern, yet there's earnestness in their humble beginnings that's admirably low-key, balanced with a real-world perspective on their lives outside of the friendship. It's the main attraction, but Wallace and Chantry are also interesting in their individual spheres, especially Chantry's struggle with independence and professional advancement.
Wallace is largely the focal point in What If, since most of what happens does so through his point of view: his romantic pessimism, his decision to pursue a friendship with a taken woman, and his evolving chemistry with her. It's a straightforward role, but Daniel Radcliffe enriches his pangs of despondence and deepening infatuation for Chantry with an endearing hang-dog disposition, the Harry Potter actor's soulful eyes and innate reservation fitting well with Wallace's forlorn confusion over how to handle the situation. Zoe Kazan offers a singular object for his confused affection as Chantry, a unique blend of meekness and confidence through the eyes of an artist. Their imperfect chemistry works with the crossed wires and ambiguity of a pseudo-relationship, the nebulous of non-dates and tiptoeing around Chantry's fiancee, but things get a little patchy once the film's conversation turns towards a fated romantic kinship. Their destination might be the main attraction, but Wallace and Chantry are arguably more interesting as awkward will-they-won't-they individuals, especially considering Chantry's independence and job prospects.
That's one of What If's more impressive traits: the handling of elements outside of Wallace and Chantry's relationship and within their individual spaces, the things that restrain their leaps into romantic endeavors. Despite the intentionally exaggerated full-throttle romance between Allen (Adam Driver in charismatically zany fashion) and his new-flame Nicole that's designed to juxtapose Wallace and Chantry's lack of passion, the story represents sincere real-world complications and considerations, especially in the appearance of Chantry's beau, Ben. It'd be easy to make Wallace's "competition" out to be someone worth leaving; however, aside from a few overt (and unsuccessful) plays on humor, the story does almost nothing to vilify Ben beyond giving him healthy ambition. It'd also be easier to make Wallace into someone plainly desirable, yet the story actively points out his unattractive traits and his inadequacy as a "role model" for his single-mom sister's child. The film attempts to make a distinction between what's sensibly desirable and what feels right, and it succeeds more often than it falters.
As What If plays out, however, there's little denying that it falls into a safe and unsurprising rom-com formula, with halfhearted stabs at both humor and romantic crescendos bouncing between Wallace and Chantry's conundrum. Despite sprinkling it with whimsical animated touches and snappy dialogue (though not as overtly quirky as 500 Days of Summer or other indies), director Michael Dowse ultimately cannot conceal this been-there, done-that safeness of its plotting later on, with the drama hitting expected high notes -- a party, an embarrassed forced-romance scenario, a crazy gesture of affection -- in unadventurous fashion. Granted, those familiar ideas occur in ways that still feel genuine and aware of the talent involved enough to bring Wallace and Chantry's could-be potential full circle, culminating in above-par execution that's worth watching for the actors' embodiment of conventional characters with a modern edge. Could've been more, but it fills the 2014 rom-com gap with more maturity than expected.
Video and Audio:
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment remain consistent in presenting their new-release independent films with diligent quality, and What If is no exception, though that's relatively expected considering its updated digital photography. Framed at 2.35:1 through a 1080p AVC encode, it's the kind of high-definition treatment that relishes sneaky textures in clothing, unique interior design, and the warmth and detail of close-ups, creating a sense of deep intimacy through largely mundane shots. Woven fabrics and stray hairs are pleasingly sharp and constant. Interior sequences relish temperate moody lighting with capable contrast, while exterior shots -- especially a stunning pitch-black nighttime sequence -- project inky black levels and responsive skin tones to complex lighting. The clincher here comes during conversation scenes that scrutinize Wallace and Chantry's facial mannerisms, where the shade of their flushed skin and the stability of the digital presence (no egregious grain or color blocking) constantly lock one into the mood. You have to fish for noteworthy moments, but it's a classy transfer from Sony.
The best thing one can really say about the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is that no issues could be pinpointed, from the natural presence of dialogue to the balance of music against the persistence speech. There aren't many traditionally robust moments to be found in What If's soundtrack, as one can expect from a rom-com, but subtle moments in the track deliver a strong atmospheric punch: the bustle of several parties spread across the channels, the splashing of outdoor water while swimming, and the movement of a kitchen knife. Activity remains centered in the front channels at most points, but a few details sneak back to the rear channels where needed. The musical score never clashes with the dialogue or subtle sound effects, always staying clear yet respectful. Most importantly, the clarity of speech is impeccable and natural, allowing the bass and mid-range levels to deftly present the varied speech tempos throughout the film, from Zoe Kazan's delightful alto to Daniel Radcliffe's accented treble. For what it needs to do, this is a terrific track.
At the center of the supplements stands Behind the Scenes of What If (18:07, 16x9 HD) , which offers a decent, chapter-separated featurette that covers the full process of dreaming up the film, from its rising notoriety on the Black List to romanticizing Toronto for the film's shoot and elaborating on the characters' nuance through the proper tone. The piece includes a wealth of interviews and elaborative behind-the-scenes shots, complete with inconspicuous title cards describing the day and location of each shoot.
It's a good thing that the behind the scenes piece does a lot of the elaborative heavy-lifting, because the rest of the pieces are a series of press-kit (#WhatIfMovie) featurettes that frequently retraces and reuses the same material: Blurred Lines (3:58, 16x9 HD) describes the characters and plot; Opposites Attract (3:52, 16x9 HD) congratulates the actors' abilities and their presence on-set; and A Modern Love Story (4:04, 16x9 HD) dithers about the film's romance themes. They all come across as a sales pitch for the movie, but there's enough sincerity peeking out from the actors to make them worth a run. The disc closes out with a series of Deleted Scenes (5:39, 16x9 HD), most of which were wise edits that weakened the story's throughline.
What If doesn't renovate the "friend zone" rom-com quite the way it'd probably like to, but the wittiness and sincerity of its script, direction, and the performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan still shape it into a reputable entry in the genre. Despite being pretty predictable and trying too hard to work quirk and whimsy, director Michael Rowse pieced together an indie relationship depiction that stands out among the saccharine fluff of its contemporaries as a modest example of how the formula can be judiciously satisfying. Largely, it's because What If really tries to be real about the topic, blending the ethical dilemma of romantic feelings for a "taken" friend with intentionally tricky chemistry between the leads. Sony's Blu-ray looks and sounds just the way it should, and arrives with a decent behind-the-scenes featurette. Recommended.