Whether you go into What If (known as The F Word in some markets) out of curiosity or coercion, know this one thing in advance and determine the rest of your assessment later: It’s not funny. Not a single moment of forced awkwardness or supposedly edgy banter carries with it a single laugh, or even a giggle. Imagine an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” without any punchlines or laugh tracks, and you should get an idea of how aimless and ingratiating the chatter can get.
The similarities to ”HIMYM” make sense, given the plot about an underachieving, heartbroken former medical student and current writer of technical manuals (Daniel Radcliffe) who is unsure how to act on his obvious chemistry with a cute, talented, intelligent animator (Zoe Kazan) who truly seems to get him … but is in a serious long-term relationship with no apparent end date. It’s an old story, but the sitcom format has the clear advantage here, as it can make that romantic tension an underlying theme that the viewer wants to see resolved, as the show temporarily defuses and postpones with hijinks and subplots, making the laugh track-enhanced banter necessary to the story. In a film like What If, the tension needs to be front and center for the story to work, so the banter ends up feeling more like stalling than storytelling. All the defanged talk of cannibalism and sex nachos sound as if they were written by someone who may know what a joke is in theory but has never actually heard one.
Maybe that’s too tall an order for what is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but if you can accept the fact that What If isn’t funny from the outset, you may find some worthwhile qualities. Even though the role isn’t all that meaty, this is the first performance by Radcliffe where he becomes more than just that grown-up who used to play Harry Potter. While some of the cast seems bored by the proceedings, the chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan works, and their reasons for needing to keep their true feelings hidden are believable. This is no “idiot plot” where a single conversation between two reasonable adults would have solved everything. As anyone who has ever had real romantic feelings where a true friendship also existed will tell you, there’s nothing cute about it. Its mood that What If gets right, even as it does itself no favors by dragging it down with sitcom setups.
WHAT IF | RATED PG-13 | IN THEATERS FRI 8.8