Give credit to Lena Dunham and “Girls” for ruining an entire genre of urban romantic-comedy movies. Those sparkly romps about cleverly named young things who banter and banter until their cynicism gives way and they fall madly into happy ever after? Total BS. Life never works that way, which is why we have movies. “Girls” works the other way, gazing acridly at the romance of the Young Urban Hipster and calling BS, BS, BS. Hard to watch, but a necessary corrective.
And it makes a movie like “What If” just about impossible to watch. The “Girls” connection is there for the taking, since Adam Driver has a supporting role. In Dunham’s universe, he’s Hannah’s boyfriend, Adam — a creep and a cutie, a bad boy who’s also a good guy. Much like life. In Michael Dowse’s film, he’s the hero’s blustery, sexually confident best friend, saying all the things the lead character can’t. Much like the movies. You can actually see Driver cut his talent to fit the cloth of this role.
The hero of “What If” is Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a woebegone Toronto med-school dropout still in a funk over breaking up with his girlfriend a year ago. He has a generically dead-end romantic-comedy job (copywriting user manuals), lives with his single-mom sister (Jemima Rooper) and mostly hangs out on her roof. Then he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), a kinda cute, kinda nerdy free spirit who’s an animator and whose cartoon creations fly around the walls of this movie until you want to swat them.
Wallace and Chantry meet at a party over by the refrigerator poetry magnets and are soon saying arch little things to each other about grammar. Then they reconnect at a daytime screening of “The Princess Bride.” Then they hang out at a diner and discuss how much feces was in Elvis Presley’s colon when he died. There is a word for this. The word is twee.
Wallace has a problem: He’s in love with Chantry but she already has a boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), a handsome, funny guy with a terrific career in international something or other. He’s exactly what a woman might want in a boyfriend, which in a movie like this means he’s the Antichrist. “What If” has fun putting jalapeno juice in Ben’s eye and pushing him out windows, but eventually it has to pack him overseas so the hero can figure out whether he can “just be friends” with the woman he’s crazy for. You’ll know the answer long before he does.
The movie has a problem, too: Spall is likable, Kazan is adorable, Driver is amusing enough as the blowhard best friend, and Radcliffe as Wallace is . . . a passive-aggressive lump. In his headlong flight from He Who Must Not Be Named (Harry Potter, not Voldemort), the actor has admirably tried just about everything onstage, on screen, and under the sun. He was excellent as the young Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings” (2013) and has earned solid reviews for his title performance in Broadway’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” He’s in an upcoming film version of “Frankenstein” — as Igor.
Yet that sense of youthful chutzpah is absent from “What If,” which has all the dramatic urgency of its shrug of a title. The script is based on a play, and the self-conscious, self-congratulatory language probably sounded better in a theater. On the other hand, the movie does allow Toronto to be Toronto instead of a fake New York or Boston. There are moments that charm; there are just as many that make you want to stick a fork in your eye. Ultimately it comes down to a main character who’s not all that engaging. It may be that conventional romantic leads simply don’t interest Radcliffe. If that’s the case, more power to him, but why is he here? And why are we?