Rob Reiner created the template for the modern romantic comedy in When Harry Met Sally by posing the question, "Can men and women be friends?" Michael Dowse's What If explores that topic yet again, and while the answer may be familiar, the winning cast give the concept some life.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Wallace, a twentysomething man who's floundering after washing out of medical school. He meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring animator, and though the two hit it off, she is committed to her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). The pair agree to just be friends, but they grow closer after Ben takes a job overseas; soon, things threaten to progress beyond the "friend zone."
Director Dowse, working from a script adapted by Elan Mastai from a stage play, keeps things moving along at a very TV-like pace. That's not an insult: The movie's gags land with maximum impact, and many of them are delivered by the always entertaining Adam Driver as Wallace's best friend -- he has an exultant moment of postcoital nacho eating that provides the funniest moment in the whole film.
The functional direction fits the solid but uninspired story line. There are no surprises here, though Radcliffe and Kazan are both quirky and charming, delivering their pedestrian dialogue with enough panache to keep us interested in the characters (even if we can see how this will turn out almost before it begins). They also have a chemistry that feels wholly plausible; they really do make great friends.
Rafe Spall plays Ben as written: a typically hissable bad guy, quick to respond with jealousy and dismissive of his girlfriend's feelings. It's his character who really weakens the movie; if Dowse and Mastai had challenged the audience by giving Wallace a genuine rival for Chantry, we would be even more invested in seeing him win her heart. Instead, Ben is such an obvious lout that we know from the start she isn't meant to be with him, and that lack of dramatic tension keeps the film from becoming as engaging as it could have been.
Radcliffe has grown into a dependable actor, one willing to take risks in offbeat movies like Kill Your Darlings. Zoe Kazan starred in and wrote the very smart Ruby Sparks -- an effective deconstruction of rom-coms and, more specifically, the concept of the manic-pixie dream girl. The two of them are good here, but they're both capable of so much more. They elevate this mediocre material, but here's hoping the pair meet again onscreen with characters and situations worthy of them.