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What If (2014)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Twee Romance"
1 stars

One of the funniest films of this past summer--a period that will not exactly go down in the annals of screen history in regards to intentional humor--was "They Came Together," an absolutely hilarious skewering of contemporary romantic comedies from the people who made the equally amusing summer camp movie spoof "Wet Hot American Summer" that, like its predecessor, took every cliche and convention and milked it to wonderfully absurd extremes. Alas, it was apparently not extreme enough for some people because after test audiences were slow to pick up on the fact that it was meant to be a satire of rom-coms, the filmmakers were obliged to include a last-minute framing device that made it clearer from the start that it was meant to be a goof and even then, there were some reviews that suggested that even a few critics were not quite clear on the concept.

Now, a couple of months after "They Came Together" came and went from theaters, we have "What If," a romantic comedy so ridiculous, so implausible and so overtly idiotic that it almost seems like another deadpan spoof along the lines of its predecessor. Alas, the film is no joke and it actually wants viewers to think that it is a hilarious and heartwarming saga of two endearing oddballs coming together against all odds filled with likable characters, zany plot twists and a touching conclusion despite being none of those things and containing none of those items. In fact, it so perfectly typifies the kind of filmmaking that "They Came Together" mercilessly mocked that anyone who somehow misunderstood the conceit of that film should be forced--Ludovico-style, if necessary--to watch this monstrosity on an endless loop as penance.

The last few years have seen a dramatic uptick in smug, obnoxious and aggressively quirky comedy/dramas featuring twee hipsters fumbling through a series of increasingly tedious romantic complications while hopelessly banal indie rock drones away in the background. "Like Crazy," "Ruby Sparks," "Celeste and Jesse Forever ," pretty much the entire Greta Gerwig oeuvre and others that have thankfully been expunged from memory--these examples of too-hip-for-the-room twaddle have proven to be some of the most horrific moviegoing experiences of recent times and there is a good chance that "What If" could indeed be the worst of a uniquely sorry lot. In fact, it could prove to be the ideal first date movie, in the sense that if your prospective partner shows even the barest flicker of enthusiasm for it, you should under no circumstances arrange for a second date.

"What If" is a film that dares to ask the question "Is it possible to fall in love with your best friend or, conversely, can you become close friends with someone who might otherwise be your ideal romantic partner?" The answer, of course, is "Yes" but despite all the cinematic data to the contrary, the film nevertheless chooses to test this particular hypothesis at excruciating length--okay, only 102 minutes but they sure felt excruciating. Our lab rats this time around are Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan). Wallace has been in a pronounced funk for over a year since a bad breakup caused him to drop out of med school and more or less isolate himself from the world. Chantry is a whimsical animator who is wrestling with whether or not to accept a promotion at work because the extra money, power and prestige won't allow her to indulge in the clunky bits of animation that occasionally pepper the proceedings. The two meet at a party thrown by Alan (Adam Driver), who is Wallace's best friend and Chantry's cousin, and hit it off while saying things like "awkward small talk is not my thing"--ironic since I cannot recall a single line of dialogue that either one says that would not fit under that definition.

The two seem to be perfect for each other but there is just one tiny little hitch in that it is only at the very end of the evening that Chantry lets on that she actually has a boyfriend in Ben (Rafe Spall), a dashing legal type who evidently doesn't like to be seen in public with his girlfriend--a move that become entirely understandable the more you get to know her. Later on, the two meet again when they attend a revival screening of "The Princess Bride"--one of the numerous films you would be better off watching instead of this one--and they propose just being friends, although Wallace holds some surreptitious hope of moving to the top spot once Ben regains his senses. For his part, Ben almost instantly figures out what is going on and lets Wallace known that he is on to him at an awkward dinner party that only grows exponentially more so when Wallace knocks him out of a window and into the hospital. Before long, Ben is sent off to Ireland for an extended business trip and as Wallace and Chantry spend more time together, they find themselves playing that eternal game of "Will They?/Won't They?/Who Gives A Good Goddamn?" To add to the complications, Alan and his girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) inexplicably decide to try to push the two together--even going so far as to steal their clothes and strand them during a campout gone awry (which is meant to be endearing, I fear)--and Chantry's equally idiotic sister (Megan Park) makes a play for Wallace herself.

Adapted from a play by TJ Dawe & Michael Rinaldi, "What If" is a film that fails so completely on every possible level that even the most calm and measured attempt at a review runs the risk of turning into a full-on rant after a while. For starters, if a film of this sort is to have even the slightest hope of succeeding, the characters have to be interesting and likable enough so that we in the audience are willing to follow them around while hoping that they will eventually wind up together--otherwise, the entire endeavor is pointless. Even on this most basic level, "What If" whiffs it in spectacular manner by presenting two of the least compelling characters to ever front a romantic comedy--Wallace is a whiny, indecisive and borderline creepy twerp who seems like the kind of guy who uses his copy of "American Psycho" in the same way that literarily-challenged housewives use "Fifty Shades of Grey" while Chantry is such a cloying twit that her name proves to be the least annoying thing about her. Any audience desire to see them come together will be borne almost entirely out of a desire to prevent them from further polluting the dating pool. As for the performances, the usually likable Radcliffe can do nothing with his character to make him seem like anything other than a budding sociopath while Kazan, who was in the deeply irritating "Ruby Sparks," is so aggravating and annoying her that for the first--and hopefully last--time in my moviegoing career, I found myself thinking that a film that I was watching might (I stress might have been improved if the lead actress had been replaced by either Greta Gerwig or a tire iron.

Having established two of the least appealing characters in the entire rom-com genre, the film then proceeds to give them absolutely nothing to do that will be of interest to even the most indulgent moviegoers. Elan Mastai's screenplay is so crammed with unlikely situations and unspeakable dialogue that the phrase "AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!" made the first of numerous appearances in my notes roughly 10 minutes in. To make matters worse, this is one of those films that thinks it is smarter than the typical film of this sort and yet nevertheless resorts to the exact same cliches as the others. Wacky best pals serving as an inept Greek chorus? Check. A fight that threatens to separate our heroes that occurs for no other reason except to get the third act going? Check. Characters flying halfway around the world at a moments notice without a single hint of financial or logistical difficulty? Check. All of these ingredients--and many, many more--are deployed by director Michael Dowse in the most thuddingly banal manner possible and overlaid with one of the more irritating song scores to be heard in a while. In fact, the only two noteworthy things about the film that I can recall is that it is the rare movie shot in Toronto that actually take place there and that Dowse includes a memorably gory sequence from John Carpenter's "The Thing" at one point--a clip that demonstrates a closer understanding of romantic chemistry than anything in the film proper.

After the press screening of "What If," the publicists were standing by the doors to offer each of us a sandwich known as "Fool's Gold" and which had been a recurring motif in the film. Allegedly a favorite of no less an epicure than Elvis Presley himself--which should give you some rough idea of its nutritional quotient--it consists of a hollowed-out loaf of French bread, preferably saturated in butter, that has been filled with an entire jar of peanut butter, an entire jar of grape jelly and, perhaps inevitably, a pound of extra-crispy bacon. (Needless to say, we were given mini-versions.) The end result was pretty much as awful as it sounds but I must admit that it proved to be infinitely easier to swallow than the absolutely ghastly movie that it was helping to promote. Hell, the actual movie called "Fool's Gold" was better than this. Seriously, if you see one romantic comedy this summer and you make it this one, you are an idiot.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25642&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/08/14 03:54:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  08-Aug-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Nov-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  08-Aug-2014
  DVD: 25-Nov-2014


Directed by
  Michael Dowse

Written by
  Elan Mastai

Cast
  Daniel Radcliffe
  Zoe Kazan
  Rafe Spall
  Adam Driver
  Megan Park
  Jemima Rooper



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