Romantic comedies have a bad reputation for being lazy, derivative, and overly-reliant on formula, and it’s usually a well-deserved criticism. Romantic comedies are to the female demographic what generic action flicks are to the male demographic, and they generally serve only to fill in box office schedules for weekends where there aren’t any big blockbuster releases. They’re cheap to produce and there’s always an audience for them, so it’s easy to see why studios are willing to make a few every year without much thought put into them. That’s why What If seems to me like some sort of bizarre paradox, because it is certainly derivative and formulaic, but it gets by almost entirely on a charm that certainly took some thought and effort to realize.
The story is your standard boilerplate rom-com set-up: two attractive twenty-somethings meet and then spend the entire film awkwardly denying their attraction for one another. This is nothing new, but the chemistry between stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan makes their friendship and budding romance believable, something that most star-studded romantic comedies seem to miss entirely for the sake of just having the big-name actor and actress of the week. When you get right down to it, What If works precisely because it embraces romantic comedy conventions and is determined to make the best version it possibly can. And this goes for the comedy as well, as the film has a witty script that rapid-fires jokes that are consistently funny and delivered with the self-aware sincerity of close friends trying to make each other laugh.
Unfortunately, despite the film’s loving embrace of the oft-overbaked rom-com conventions, it also falls into one of the genre’s inherent pitfalls: emphasizing the inherent differences in the sexes. Both Radcliffe and Kazan have a best friend archetype to bounce their woes off of; Radcliffe’s dude-bro friend is constantly encouraging him to make a move on Kazan, even though she already has a boyfriend; Kazan’s sister is consistently trying to make moves on Radcliffe, which stokes a jealousy in Kazan. These conventions wouldn’t be so bad if every single conversation they had wasn’t about making stereotypical assumptions based on the other lover’s sex, and then using the next scene to affirm those assumptions. This ball gets bounced back and forth for the entire duration of the film, and it gets tiresome if you realize that men and women truly can just be friends without any sort of romantic involvement. The point of a romantic comedy is to ensure that the leads end up together by the end, but by framing the central conflict around whether or not the two leads can maintain a friendship, the film cheapens that genuine friendship by emphasizing a missing sexual component.
Inherent flaws aside, I liked What If. It’s about as good as the romantic comedy genre gets, and while that isn’t high praise, I found this film to be a worthy-enough distraction. Probably worth a rental if this is your sort of thing.
How do you think Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter career is shaping up? Let me know in the comments below.