Yesterday was a rare Cinema Day, it being my birthday and all. Medic Friend was going to see Daniel Radcliffe’s new rom-com What If with a friend, and I sort of got talked into going along with them, against my better judgement. But Birthday Cinema is sort of a semi-custom for me. And, you know. It could have been good.
What If is a story about a boy who meets a girl at a party. They have a nice time talking about appropriately off-beat and quirky things like fridge poetry and high-calorie foodstuffs. The boy walks the girl home, only to find that she in fact has a boyfriend and just wants to be friends. Best friends, in fact. The kind of friends who see each other every day and go shopping together and…well, you can see where this is going.
I object to this premise (which is, let’s face it, hardly original) on the grounds that it only works through a piece of fairly simple, insidious piece of narrative trickery, namely that the boyfriend has no characterisation. Seriously. None. He has a dull but well-paid job (international copyright law); he is conveniently abroad or simply absent for vast swathes of the film; he has no family, or friends, or, apparently, hobbies. The only times we see him are when he is being objectionable or simply distant. He even has a normal, mainstream name (Ben), as opposed to the ridiculously, stupidly hipster Chantry and Wallace, the Starcrossed Lovers. In short, Ben’s function on a narrative level is essentially the same as Henry DeTamble’s chrono-impairment or William Darcy’s pride: he’s not a character with, you know, feelings, but an obstacle to be got rid of. It’s lazy writing designed to let the main characters off the hook, and it annoys me.
Do you know what else annoys me? What If is possibly one of the most baselessly pretentious films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s clearly trying to be a charmingly odd, endearingly semi-earnest, sepia-tinted, Instagram-bait film in the manner of Juno or Chalet Girl (it’s even set in Canada, folks! Canada!), while actually being as obvious and irritating as the worst of Jennifer Aniston’s technicoloured Hollywood monstrosities. It’s trying so hard to be hipster that it actually veers into self-parody: the final freeze-frame would not look out of place in a Simon Pegg film. And I found it hard to shake the feeling that the only character speaking any kind of sense was the bitchy sister: “Move on, Wallace,” she says, at around the seventy-minute mark, clearly and understandably bored by his constant and transparently insincere struggles of conscience. I nearly cheered.
To give the film its due, it did have its moments. I did laugh, quite a lot. Zoe Kazan as Chantry is very convincing, and even Radcliffe played the role with some gusto (although his character was more or less a grownup Harry Potter). It’s just a shame that its good points were crammed into such a hackneyed, ill-thought-out structure.