If you are a young person fortunate enough to have disposable income, summers off, without children to think about, and you also happen to be able-bodied, you may be resenting the state of the world right now. If you fit this admittedly tiny category, you wish you could be on an airplane instead, drinking ginger ale from a plastic cup, sitting next to a snoring man, or perhaps snuggling as best you can with the love of your life.
My wife and I had planned a trip to the Caribbean. I had never been, but I grew up in Galveston and so I was longing for the coast. I had never considered what a strange toll it would be to not live next to water, and the idea my wife had for a visit to whiter sands and bluer water seemed just the thing after a harrowing school year.
Obviously, that never came to pass.
But something strange that is happening with recent movies is the weird sort of diffusive effect of recent history overlaying any experience. On the one hand, when I reviewed Contagion in a previous post, I mentioned that it becomes a five star movie by default, because the language of the film (social distancing, the r0, a virus mutating) could not be ignored in coronavirus-world.
Just as that movie brought about a certain dread and too much understanding, so the opposite is true.
My wife and I watched a fun movie last night. What If is about as standard a romantic comedy as you can get. It’s the kind of film that you would put on while flying in an airplane, drinking ginger ale from a plastic cup. Unless you find yourself in a fraught relationship and your partner is best friends with a potential thief of your relationship in the night, you cannot go wrong with this one.
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has been through a break-up. Not only that, the break-up sends some traumatic PTSD his way from his parent’s relationship. As he was, his parents met in the medical field, dated and married and had affairs in the medical world. Wallace’s girlfriend for a time was also a med student in the same hospital. One day he walks in on her and her anatomy class professor snogging in the storage room. Wallace conflates the experiences of him and his parents and vows off relationships for all time.
Enter Chantry (Zoe Kazan), a hipster animator who floats through life as though it is just good enough. But a couple of tweaks point to several insecurities and disappointments. Her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) is exceedingly successful, so much so that international copyright law needs him in Dublin for six months. Her quiet demeanor and austere style has her preferring her artistic work rather than become a project manager position in Taiwan. Chantry meets Wallace just before Ben departs for international fame. Chantry is the hopeless romantic contrast to Wallace’s supposed cynicism, and will do what it takes to make a relationship work, even if that means investing her energy into another person to remind herself. While it is obvious for both of them that they need each other, time will tell if that need turns into a want.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that What If is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not. This may be grade A romantic comedy material, but it does nothing to separate itself from the crowd. It starts with an unlikely meet up, and it features inside jokes that foreshadow a romantic finale. It has the first act of “getting to know you” and it follows up with a second act that complicates the dynamic. By the end of the second act, the timing of coming together is just off enough to make you second guess if they’ll end up together. But by the third act, you can see which way the wind is blowing.
If there are any standouts, it perhaps has to do with the combination of quirky scriptwriting and Adam Driver’s delivery as Radcliffe’s voice of reason. Driver is beautiful in an ugly way, and it makes for an excellent interlocutor to the things that either the viewer is thinking or should be thinking as they watch. He is the Greek chorus distilled, and his height and voice cement the story and keep it from taking off like a helium balloon.
Perhaps another plus to the movie is that it is very confident in what it is trying to do. Many other romantic comedy films may take a risk on a plot that buries it in melodrama or risks turning into absurdity. While there are some films like 500 Days of Summer that get away with it, What If stays conservatively in its lane. The significance of what the film represents after it’s all over may leave little to ponder, but the meaning as you’re watching is just clean fun.
Where are all the masks!?
This makes for a very difficult review then. People who go in to see this film know exactly what they want and understand that they are going to get it. People who despise romantic comedies know they should socially distance themselves from the film as much as possible. So is there a point to reviewing the film at all?
This is a question I especially wonder at, both alone and out loud with my wife. One of our favorite movies is Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, an unquestionably derivative, poorly written, strangely acted, improvisational nightmare of a film. But we have seen the film at least four or five times and we cannot seem to stop. Yet the film has painfully low reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sometimes, like in the movie Birdman, questions of art criticism show up explicitly in bar conversations about what the definition of it is, why both the artist and the critic need to exist, and how saying something about something else can improve (or destroy) the original artwork on display.
Conventionally reviewing this film is not the right solution. But we are not living in conventional times.
Watching the film, we could not help but stare in total jealousy at the landscape of Toronto. Wallace and Chantry go to house parties. The young and beautiful actors and actresses wander the busy streets and lounge in stores and try on dresses and pick up Chinese food and drink in bars and dance at raves. No one is wearing a mask, and the style of clothing is such that in 2013 athleisure had not destroyed any hint of style. So they wear the part and act the part in places that are very much the part they were meant to play without us knowing, which was to be the cultural milieu of a functioning city.
You never really know what you got until it’s gone.
When Adam Driver and his fiance Mackenzie Davis decide to get married at the engagement party, when you see all the characters laughing and drinking and giving grand speeches about the power of marriage, suddenly the movie is a tearjerker of a different sort. It’s the most ordinary of films to remind you of the unordinariness of your life now.
There will be no one to wistfully long for the days of coronavirus. No one will put on films of romantic comedies made that take place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Already it seems the fatigue of the virus has settled in. People are balking at orders to stay in here in the United States, and podcasters and YouTubers and reporters give the virus short shrift for context only, before they can talk about how much Mulan is going to cost when it arrives on Disney+.
Every image, every shot from the film, is a regular reminder of the unseen joys of simply being in health and longevity.