From the moment that a forlorn lead character rearranges some fridge magnets to read ‘love is stupid’, What If sets itself up as something contrary to the regular romantic-comedy, a subversive film in the mould of Annie Hall or 500 Days of Summer. Lower your expectation somewhat. Where those films prospered with sharp writing and a dark, almost philosophical exploration of relationships, this is hampered by its dearth of memorable moments or insights, romantic or comedic.
Walter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Ruby Sparks’ Zoe Kazan) meet at the party of a mutual friend and immediately hit it off. Yet, it’s a little more complicated than your average hookup, for a hitch comes in the shape of her UN ambassador boyfriend (Rafe Spall is treated more as a plot cog than a character in his own right). Based on the play by T.J. Dawe, it dwells on this complication and their subsequent friendship; will they work it out, or else leave all of their feelings unspoken?
Disappointingly, the answers are the kind that you can foresee from the very beginning, and director Michael Dowse zips through the rom-com stages without so much as considering a change from convention. The same approach applies to the dialogue – though there are a handful of talky diner scenes, Elan Mastai’s script just doesn’t have the wit necessary to sustain them, often turning to beautiful animation to make the film more, well, animated. Adam Driver is supposed to offer comic relief as Walter’s lustful lothario of a best friend, but even his brand of crass weirdness can’t give the story some much-needed laughs.
The romance is appealing enough, although the conflict faced by Kazan’s carefree animator - does she stay put or follow her heart? - is better reflected than Walter’s pessimistic love troubles. In any case, Radcliffe and Kazan are much better than the material they have to work with, at one point inspiring awe with their giddy romantic chemistry. More Hugh Grant than Harry Potter, Radcliffe is a particular delight, enlivening a lot of flat scenes with his sardonic, deadpan delivery. If the writing had as much energy, this could’ve actually been refreshing.
Radcliffe and Kazan make the most of a limp, lacklustre script, but this lacks the spark of, say, Ruby Sparks.