What If this was a good movie? Ha. Ha ha. No, but seriously, this is insufferable tripe.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
It took roughly 20 minutes for me to consider whether walking out of the cinema would be preferable to sitting through the remaining 82 of What If, a “romantic” “comedy” from Michael Dowse, the director of 2012’s exceptional Goon. It was during yet another conversation about shit, at least the fifth in that very short time-span, that I genuinely started wondering if I should just get up and leave. Oh, I should mention, that is not me comically oversimplifying the various “witty” conversations that our two leads, Wallace and Chantry (and, no, I’m not making that up, either, that is her actual name), engage in. There are multiple lengthy, graphic, in-depth and overall disgusting conversations about shit and, specifically, the way that you deal with a dead person’s shit. This film has a weird obsession with shit which is apt, quite frankly, seeing as the film itself is total, irredeemable shit.
Folks, this one made me angry. It made me really angry. I saw it for free at an early screening and I wondered if I could go up to staff after the film had finished and try to swing getting a refund. What If (previously titled “The F Word”) is a thoroughly misguided film predicated on two of the most vehemently unlikeable rom-com leads I have had the displeasure of being forced to be in the company of in I don’t even know how long. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in Blended were more likeable than these two turd-buckets! At least their romance wasn’t based around them both being the most terrible people and having to screw over a perfectly decent guy in the process. And this would be fine if that was the point or if the film at least had the tiniest bit of self-awareness of just how terrible these characters are and how their prospective romance makes them despicable people, but it’s there egging them on at every opportunity and openly inviting you, the viewer, to beg them to just cheat on the third wheel with one another so that true love can conquer all and other such shite. Funnily enough, I did not; in fact, I found it quite reprehensible and only wanted them both to get together because they, being utter shitstains of human beings, truly deserved each other.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Daniel Radcliffe plays Wallace, a British med-student drop out living in Toronto with his sister and her son and nursing a broken heart after his girlfriend, a fellow med-student, cheated on him over a year ago with their professor (and, yes, he did drop out as a result of this because he is a child). At a party, his friend Allan (the normally dependable Adam Driver) introduces him to his animator cousin Chantry (Zoe Kasan) and the two hit it off until she offhandedly reveals that she has a boyfriend of five years, Ben (Rafe Spall, goddammit). Wallace seems ready to just forget they ever met (because he is a child), but circumstances conspire to have them keep meeting up and they resolve to remain friends. Except that both Chantry and Wallace seem to be really attracted to one-another, and when Ben’s job forces him to leave the country for six months, Chantry ends up spending more and more time with Wallace and you receive absolutely no prizes for guessing what eventually happens between the pair.
Here’s the thing, Ben absolutely does not deserve the treatment he gets put through by both Wallace and Chantry (hang on, allow me a second to restrain my laughter rage at that ridiculous name; apologies to any actual Chantrys out there, but when your name is used for a character in a rom-com as try-too-hard quirky as this one, I’m going to find it stupid). You know how in rom-coms where one of the two leads are already in a relationship with somebody they make that other person a giant dick or show the lead to be unhappy in that current relationship, in order to make it less of a moral quandary that you’re basically wanting them to cheat or dump their partner to get with the other lead? Yeah, that doesn’t happen here. Ben is a stand-up guy, Chantry is happy being in a relationship with him, and they both try really hard to make the long-distance thing work. The only crimes that Ben is shown to be guilty of are being correctly suspicious that Wallace just wants to get into Chantry’s pants, and not daring to ask her if she wanted to move with him to Dublin which he didn’t do because he didn’t want her to choose between her job and him. That’s it.
Yet the film wants you to shout “YEAH! F*CK THAT GUY! You go for Wallace, Chantry! You two are clearly meant to be together!” And I know that that is the film’s intention because it keeps constructing these scenes where the pair share longing glances at one another, where the soft focus is deployed, the reverb drenched guitar strings ring, and one or the other spends a long time uncomfortably close to each other looking like they’re strongly considering making out. Maker, there’s even a bit where the two go skinny dipping and Chantry actually says to Wallace as they both keep their gazes at eye level and cover up their private parts, “I’ll look if you look.” So, what exactly is Ben guilty of? Why should I root for Chantry to cheat on this perfectly nice man? Because he may possibly have cheated on her with a member of the Argentinian delegation? OK, why would I believe that, seeing as it’s Chantry’s suspicious accusatory remarks over a Ben and film who have given me absolutely no reason to disbelieve his insistence that they’re just friends? Because he didn’t ask her to move to Dublin? That would be a bit more understandable if, I dunno, his swell and non-dickish behaviour had given me any reason to distrust his pleas that he understands how much Chantry loves her job and doesn’t want her to have to sacrifice her career for their relationship. Because he strongly distrusts Wallace’s intentions to just be friends with Chantry? Err, yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, What If, but he’s completely right.
Why am I supposed to root for these two to screw over this guy? He even asks for Chantry’s approval before taking the job overseas, and it’s not like those times where characters like her reluctantly say yes. She jumps into his arms and embraces him over the idea! He tries really hard to make the long-distance thing work, as does she. He even takes her out with him on work-related commitments when she visits unannounced in order to spend time with her. Why should I have to root for misery and unhappiness to befall him? Because she can come up with more alternative names for Cool Whip with Wallace than she can with Ben? F*ck off. And this is especially bad with Wallace as, lest we forget, his last relationship ended when he was cheated on and we’re supposed to view that as completely unforgivable. Yet we are supposed to root for Chantry to cheat on Ben with Wallace as it’s for true love, and Allan’s girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) met Allen by cheating on her boyfriend too but that’s OK because true love! So, according to What If, cheating is perfectly fine and dandy as long as the person you’re doing it with is your true love, otherwise it is an unforgivable sin and you are perfectly within your rights to act like a petulant child over it.
Again, this would all be fine if the film was about the fact that these are terrible people or if it had any modicum of self-awareness about proceedings or if the film really was just a mature look at how you handle being friends with someone you have a giant crush on but is off-limits (which is something I have been through multiple times, let me tell you). But it isn’t, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t want to be. It wants to be a straight rom-com where you are supposed to root for these two to get together no matter the cost. There is one scene near the end where it seems like the film has been building all along to the “surprise, they’re terrible people!” reveal, but then it just turns out to be the late-game falling-out scene that staves off the inevitable for another ten minutes, like in pretty much every rom-com ever. In a world where Gravity Falls, a Disney Channel cartoon for children between the ages of 8 and 11, is able to offer up a mature, heartfelt and sensible take on this kind of scenario, there is no excuse for something like What If (although that sounds like a dig at Gravity Falls, one of the best shows on television, which it is not, but I’m getting off-topic).
And maybe I could forgive this if the rest of the film wasn’t so insufferable. But the presentation is so half-assedly try-too-hard quirky (the first half of the film has frequent overlays of stuff like how Fool’s Gold is made, or faces of people that our leads were previously in long-term relationships with when they’re discussed, or has Chantry’s animations very occasionally be displayed in the real world to create a false sense that they mean anything; before dropping all such “quirky” stylistic cues in the entire second half), and the leads are so checked out (Harry Potter proved that Daniel Radcliffe could be rather proficient at deadpan snarking but he clearly does not give a crap here) and have so little chemistry with one another, and the supporting cast are all so inept or so totally wasted (Adam Driver turns up to alternately say dickish-yet-ultimately-right things or yell randomly because people who yell are funny), and the script is completely devoid of wit (once again: shit) or jokes or actual romance, that I can’t. I just can’t. There is nothing decent about this film and all that ends up doing is exposing its more systemic flaws.
What If’s premise, a look at how hard it can be to remain friends with someone you have a giant crush on, is one that deserves far better than it is served here: as a straight rom-com that asks the audience to root for the petulant guy who doesn’t seem to understand boundaries and a girl who permanently seems five seconds away from cheating on her boyfriend to get together and screw over this perfectly nice third wheel. If the film was more mature or showed reasons for the audience to get behind this central will-they/won’t-they (like maybe Ben really is a dick, or actually showing Ben and Chantry growing apart from one another), it could still be salvaged. But the script is tone-deaf and has no setting beyond “but TRUE LOVE!!” Mind, in the end, I was rooting for Wallace and Chantry to get together because, as it turns out, they really do deserve each other as they are both utter shitdicks. Still didn’t stop me greeting the ending with a resounding “Oh, f*ck off,” of course.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like my romantic-comedies to contain at least a trace amount of romance and/or comedy. As you may be able to gather, I don’t find possible infidelity to be particularly romantic, and as for the comedy I would like to once again remind you that there are multiple conversations about faecal matter and shit in dead people. I despise this movie, despise it with every fibre of my being, and I will give both of my hands, Only God Forgives style, before I let this film go down as anything other than a putrid stain on the rom-com genre. Do not let Daniel Radcliffe’s face fool you, this is tripe. Avoid at all costs.
What If is released in cinemas nationwide from Wednesday 20 August 2014.
Callum Petch hopes it doesn’t seem like he’s young, foolish and green. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!