Call it “When Harry Met Sally” with skinny-dipping. Or "(500) Days of Summer” with people falling out of windows. However you frame the sweet yet self-conscious “What If,” it pales in comparison to those and so many other rom-coms.
That would have less to do with the “rom” and the “com” and more with the thinness of the movie’s overall concept. Sure, director Michael Dowse (“Goon,” “Take Me Home Tonight”) and writer Elan Mastai (who adapted the script from a play called “Toothpaste and Cigars”) try to gussy up their slender story with bits of animation and fantasy, a few zippy flashbacks, tone-shifting slapstick and scads of overeager banter. But it can’t cover the basic fact that, once you get past the film’s been-there theme — Can a straight man and a woman just be friends? — it’s essentially, “Check, please.”
Fortunately, “What If” has a pair of charming, sympathetic leads in Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. Both ooze a genuine warmth and sincerity that keeps us planted on their side even when their characters, love-scarred medical school dropout Wallace (Radcliffe) and simpatico animator Chantry (Kazan), make frustrating moves or react in questionable ways, and that is often.
Wallace, the wary product of adulterous parents, meets the equally glib Chantry at a party thrown by Wallace’s best friend, Allan (Adam Driver, in ebullient guru mode), who conveniently is Chantry’s cousin. Wallace and Chantry immediately hit if off, but there’s a hitch: Chantry has a longtime boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), an ambitious international copyright lawyer.
Chantry and Ben are apparently in love, which only leaves open the “friend” berth for Wallace. Undeniably taken with Chantry, Wallace steps into the buddy role with trepidation — and the clear if unspoken hope that a Chantry-Ben breakup is in the offing. (That Ben can be a formidable jerk is revealed early on to Wallace but not to Chantry, giving Wallace and the audience an unfair advantage.)
What follows is a predictable, often contrived, fitfully amusing journey as Wallace and Chantry navigate the ups and downs of being “just friends,” while largely unproductive advice flows from those around them, including Allan, his girlfriend and later wife, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis); and Chantry’s adorably promiscuous sister, Dalia (Megan Park, terrific). When Ben makes a six-month move to Dublin for work, it might be time for Wallace and Chantry to fish or cut bait. Or maybe just take that aforementioned skinny-dip.
The movie ultimately proves too cute by half as it works overtime to intoxicate us with its youthful romanticism, hyper-clever verbiage (really, why so many fecal references?) and fascination with a gross sandwich known as Fool’s Gold.
Although “What If” nobly attempts to honor and embellish the tropes of the genre rather than reinvent them, the filmmakers get tripped up on their own good intentions and uncertain comedic instincts. The result is a passable date movie that exhausts when it should enchant.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity, language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; AMC Century City 15; Landmark, West Los Angeles