Normally an early press screening is a fine opportunity to assess a movie with an abundance of lead time — a gift, really. But in the case of Michael Dowse’s new romantic comedy What If, the June screening date made the picture the victim of (initially, at least) an unfortunate bit of timing: it was the first romantic comedy your film editor saw after They Came Together, David Wain’s endlessly funny and mercilessly savage send-up of the entire, tired genre. As I watched the film’s insanely attractive, high-chemistry couple Meet Cute and spend the next 90-plus minutes narrowly missing each other, the Wain film rattled around in my head. Can the traditional romantic comedy even work anymore?
I’m not the only one asking the question. Last month, over at The Atlantic, Megan Garber noted that the romantic comedy was basically obsolete, culturally irrelevant and commercially comatose: “They got too good at obeying their own, once-successful formulas — and failed to see beyond them.” Her rom-com obit was prompted by They Came Together, echoing the sentiment, aired in some of its mixed reviews, that the film seemed strangely aged, sending up films that were a decade-plus old. There’s a practical explanation for that: Wain and Showalter wrote the script years ago. But the dated references didn’t bother this viewer (or, I’m suspecting, many others) for another, simpler reason — because I haven’t actually watched a straight-up rom-com, a Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Lopez or Kate Hudson vehicle, in a very, very long time. There’s a sense that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all; based on the evidence of trailers and promo clips, they don’t seem to have reinvented the wheel since I last checked in.
Which brings us to What If. The premise, just in time for that 25th anniversary, is a kind of When Millennial Harry Met Sally: Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan) meet at a party and have an immediate rapport, but their warm walk home goes cold when she awkwardly announces that she’d better get inside, because “my boyfriend will be wondering what happened to me.” It’s an applause-worthy line, so beautifully tuned in to the way such information is awkwardly shoe-horned into a conversation where it should’ve been raised much earlier. Wallace, who is just getting over a year-old breakup, shrugs off the encounter, but she pushes: she really likes him. Can’t they just be friends?
I’m old enough to remember When Harry Met Sally’s initial release, and an editorial pegged to it in my local paper (this was before your fancy Internet think-pieces, kids) asking the eternal question, “Can men and women just be friends?” The answer to the question, obviously, is, “Sure they can, but if they’re the focal point of a motion picture, and they’re as cute together as Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are, they can only be friends for about 90 minutes, and then they have to wind up together, or there will be rioting in the aisles.”
And so we have the expected complications: misunderstandings, jealousy, old girlfriends, current boyfriends, possible side flings. And of course there is advice, both good and bad, from those old standbys: the YOLO sister (Megan Park) and the hedonistic best friend (Adam Driver, who puts a welcome spin on even the dullest of dialogue). It’s clear these two are supposed to be together, clear from their first interactions, and certainly during a hubba-hubba dressing room scene of entertainingly stifled eroticism. But if they get together, the movie will be over; the whole genre is about waiting it out. (Or, as Patton Oswalt once put it, “Every romantic comedy should just be called Trying to Fuck. This week, Jennifer Aniston and this guy are going to Try to Fuck. Next week, Jennifer Aniston and another guy are going to Try to Fuck.”)
So yes, What If is frequently funny and unquestionably well done — but it all feels so predetermined. Yet, on reflection (and again, the advantage of that long lead time), those concerns fade. What sticks is how engaging the picture is: Radcliffe makes a charismatic romantic lead, wisely keeping his accent and displaying comic timing that’s sharp as a tack, while Kazan — always keen to keep the MPDG tropes at bay — makes Chantry (who is, good God, an animator, how precious) more than the sum of her tics and neuroses. The picture flirts with the clichés, but skillfully avoids the worst of them, while going into unexpected territory, both comically (there’s one bit of absolutely perfect, out-of-left-field slapstick, as well as a delightful running gag about the Elvis-approved “Fool’s Gold Loaf”) and dramatically. They honor the complexity of these relationships, instead of seeing them as simple mathematics.
To be sure, What If does not change the game in any meaningful way; as Garber’s Atlantic piece noted, technology and social media have made dating an entirely different beast these days, and movies have been painfully slow to catch up. (Mainstream movies, at least; say what you will about the so-called “mumblecore” movement, but films like LOL and Funny Ha Ha at least seemed to have something of a finger on the pulse of how “the young people” are “hooking up” these days.) But it does confirm that the genre is not, as has been reported, dead; there’s much about it that is worth saving.
Yes, the romantic comedy gets a pretty bum rap, and for good reason: most of them really are atrocious. But that’s not the complaint you tend to hear; the problem, we’re told, is that they’re wildly predictable, working time and again from an established playbook. Yet in the basic terms we’re laying out here, most subgenres — action movies, cop flicks, buddy comedies, disaster films, coming-of-age dramas, disease-of-the-week TV movies, sharknado epics — manage to tell pretty much the same story every time out, without getting raked over the coals for predictability. (And, as Variety recently noted, we should welcome the summer romantic comedy if for no other reason than for variety’s sake.) Yes, you have seen movies like What If before. Yes, you will see movies like it again. But when it does what it does well, what’s the harm?