Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What If

What happened to lawyers in the movies?

We started out as heroic figures: Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Paul Newman in "The Verdict," Spencer Tracy in "Inherit the Wind." Since then, it's been a slippery slope from signifiers of success through hard work to, now, vapid shorthand for soulless self-obsession and amoral avarice. In the simpering new romcom "What If," an actor named Rafe Spall plays Ben, an international lawyer and the long-term boyfriend of Zoe Kazan's Chantry, a talented animator. It's come to the point where from his profession alone you know he's wrong for her.

At a party, Chantry meet-cutes a med school dropout named Wallace, played by Daniel Radcliffe in a performance earnestly meant to ignite a post-"Harry Potter" acting career but vaguely redolent of desperation. The diminutive Radcliffe may be your idea of a romantic lead, but not mine, and it doesn't help that the script calls on Wallace, and Chantry, and their best friends (Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis) to prattle on ceaselessly, often about matters gastrointestinal. Kazan is almost but not quite as annoying here as in "Ruby Sparks."

I stopped counting the instances of falsity in the first hour of "What If." Characters type on a computer keyboard and say aloud what they're typing (you do that all the time, don't you?). One writes a phone number on a napkin and the other holds it up so we can all be sure to see that it includes a 555 prefix. In more than one egregiously choreographed scene, a door opened at an inopportune moment somehow knocks a character through an open window and several stories down (moments played for laughs, incidentally). 

The whole movie's a fake. To get it made, director Michael Dowse had to come up with a treatment. The concept is, Wallace and Chantry become friends - best friends. What if, the movie asks, you couldn't be with your soul mate because it might ruin your friendship? Not the most elevated of questions, but Dowse adverts to it intermittently before jettisoning it entirely in favor of a cliché happy ending. "What If" gets appreciably quieter, and therefore better, in the second hour, which, given its star rating, tells you just how insufferable the first hour is.

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