“That’s probably the most influential film I’ve ever seen.”
—Michael Dowse on Man Bites Dog (1992)
“Love is stupid monkeys dancing in a slapstick hurricane.” Uh oh. When the first scene in a movie has someone arranging refrigerator poetry, it’s already out of ideas. So here’s Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) looking sad at a party and moving magnets around on the refrigerator. Within moments, he’s joined by Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who wonders adorably at his melancholy. They exchange words, not on the refrigerator. They part. He finds her moments later, arranging her own poetry. They’re adorable together. They part.
It’s not until the third or fourth parting, at last in front of her Toronto apartment building, that you learn the gimmick in What If. Chantry has a boyfriend waiting for her upstairs, and so her relationship with Wallace is established with limits. But this makes it special, that they will be friends (this movie was formerly titled The F Word). She will trust him, he will be trustworthy, and they will be adorable, together, for the next 105 minutes or so. Until the obstacles. Like, say, the reason Wallace is melancholy, which is to say his broken heart brought on by a cheating ex (Jordan Hayes). Or, say, her successful international copyrights lawyer boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), who is not adorable in any way, but is instead, by turns jealous and self-involved and maybe even a little bit deceptive.
Because this is a romantic comedy, formulaic by definition, you know all of this long before Wallace and Chantry do. Call this the romantic comedy’s meta-formula. Your relationship to the relationship is ever part of the process of watching (consuming) such product, and so you might have already made your peace with it, which is to say, both the process and the product. You anticipate, you feel cynical or enchanted, but always, you know. You don’t believe the hype that it is somehow more “honest” than other versions of the same product. But hey, you know what you’re in for. That’s why you’re in.
And so: this product offers up a best friend for him, Allan (Adam Driver), who has a fiancée Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), as well as a couple of best friends (Tommie-Amber Pierce and Meghan Heffern) and a sister (Megan Park) for her. It also imagines a nifty job for Chantry: because she is an animator, she conjures animated angels when she’s yearning (an animated angel so potent that it appears for Wallace when he yearns as well, which suggests they share a sensibility, at least, and certainly a destiny).
To ensure that destiny, because Wallace must reinvigorate his sad self in order to merit the affection of the quirkily creative animator, the movie comes up with an eventually resurgent ambition for him, so he won’t just be a miserable med school drop-out living with his adorable sister Ellie (Jemima Rooper) and her adorable son Felix (Lucius Hoyos). When Wallace needs prodding beyond that offered by Chantry, his sister is so adorable that she performs one upset scene with a mouthful of sandwich, until she runs into her own obstacle and Wallace must Heimlich her and so, perchance, rediscover his passion for medicine, or something like that.
This conventional jumble of adorable motives and supporting characters does resemble, in its way, the sort of possibilities you’d find among refrigerator magnets, and so you might think of that opening scene as clever, or at least self-knowing. But that doesn’t mean that when the pieces are put together, they are any more or less original or “honest” than a less self-professedly indie, more mainstream sort of movie.
This naming in itself has become a formula, one that hardly makes the problem of the formula as such go away. And so, the question may be, how to redefine and also acknowledge formula, not to reject or embrace it, but to seek in it a framework within which to tell an original or even compelling story, to use it to think about fictions and truths, expectations and disappointments, art and experience? Is it possible to make use of the genre?
What if doesn’t address these questions. Instead, it contrives. Wallace and Chantry both like The Princess Bride, sushi, and wordplay (all elements that help with both the f word and the a word). They might have actual conversations too, about subjects that don’t make for misunderstanding or clever dialogue or a romantic movie montage, but you don’t see that, because they are, after all, in that movie that features all of these things by definition.
When Ben confronts Wallace early on, asking, “Are you trying to sleep with my girlfriend?”, the query both misses and makes the point. It’s the same point made and missed by the repeated image of Wallace sitting atop the shingled, pointy roof at his sister’s house, perched as if to tip one way or the other, gazing on the glittering lights of distant city.
He doesn’t have to try and he doesn’t have to tip. You know how his refrigerator poetry turns out.