In the opening scene of this smart-alecky rom-com for the cardigan set, heartbroken med-school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) spells out “love is stupid” using fridge magnets at a friend’s party. His hopeless romanticism is exposed further when his eyes light up at being introduced to the charming Chandry (Zoe Kazan), an animator whose pronunciation of “forte” he feels the need to flirtatiously correct. And after spending the whole party meeting cute, Wallace walks Chandry home and gets her number, only to find out that she has a boyfriend. From this moment on, What If takes a page—or, rather, the whole book—from When Harry Met Sally…, repetitiously posing the question about whether men and women can be friends without benefits. And right up to its simplistic ending, the film is pleased to regurgitate the contrived tropes of the genre—foreign-bound job offers, a thankless boyfriend, dressing-room shenanigans, a night of communal skinny-dipping—without ever honestly addressing the ethics of romantic boundaries.
The film incongruously mixes vulgar, fast-paced witticisms with cloying indie-pop musical montages, setting itself up as a naughty and brutally honest take on friendship and romance, only to shy away from the ugliest of truth-telling. There’s promise in its crude framing of the story’s key issue (chatter about feces and references to philandering lovers abound), but for all its moralizing about cheating and its self-awareness about rom-coms, What If chastises the very conventions and boorish clichés of the genre that it ultimately relies on. From the misguided advice Wallace and Chandry receive from their sounding-board friends to the story’s multiple misunderstandings and pratfalls, the film eventually leads to a squeaky-clean denouement that’s meant to feel fateful, but is a cheap cop-out to all its rambling will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios.