The process began in the middle stages of the Harry Potter franchise, and by now it's undeniable. Daniel Radcliffe, the world's favorite boy wizard, has long ceased being a boy. At 25, he's well into the work of casting about for grownup roles, and he's found a pretty good one in the romantic comedy What If.
Radcliffe's Wallace, a mordantly funny, sensitive Toronto denizen, speaks in the manner of the script's hyper-articulate energy and wears his exasperation with the world out in the open. He makes fun of his pale visage, grows convincingly angry when the situation demands it and maintains an appealing vulnerability. He is, like the rest of the film, quietly likable.
A wise person once observed there are only so many story templates floating about the universe, and What If won't be accused of breaking any new narrative or thematic ground. It explores the difficulty of sustaining a meaningful platonic relationship between a heterosexual man and woman, an idea that reached its rom-com apex when Harry met Sally some 25 years ago. In the absence of novelty, execution becomes vital, and What If hits its marks with wit, consistency and even a bit of visual inventiveness.
Wallace meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party, where they bond over the magnetic poetry on the fridge. Soon enough, he meets her boyfriend (Rafe Spall), a U.N. lawyer, and accidentally knocks him out a window. What If doesn't pretend to be above the occasional pratfall, but its most prominent DNA isn't slapstick, but screwball. Men and women say witty things to each other at a rapid pace, like they did in 1930s and '40s Hollywood comedies. The density of banter in What If is considerable, and if it weren't written and acted with so much flavor, it could easily be annoying. Instead, it's rather pleasant.
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Chantry is an animator, which gives the filmmakers cause to adorn What If with butterflies and airplanes that reflect her emotional state. Again, too much of this and we'd be stranded in the land of twee. And we get dangerously close, but not enough to become an annoyance. What If shows an admirable ability to dance at the edge of whatever cliffs it approaches.
It also has a cast, at its center and on the periphery, that makes minor sins forgivable. Kazan (Ruby Sparks) is a skilled comedic actress, as is Megan Park, who plays her little sister. Adam Driver (Girls) keeps growing into his rakish persona, keyed by a self-mocking confidence that feels slightly dangerous even in such benign fare. The supporting characters in What If may have been hatched in a romantic comedy lab — the lovable lout, the supportive colleagues — but they're etched with specificity and the grace notes required to make them work.
There's a beating heart beneath the standard trappings, and attention is paid to such unglamorous matters as career frustration and the balance between romance and mundane reality. Radcliffe, who will next be seen sprouting devil horns from his temples in Horns (and serving a mad scientist as Igor in next year's Frankenstein), isn't done with fantasy yet. But with each passing movie, he slowly leaves Hogwarts, and adolescence, in the rear-view mirror.