The underlying subject of many romantic comedies is chemistry, the mysterious rapport that draws people together despite whatever circumstances — being already married, having different sexual orientations — might be working against them. It’s a tough thing to simulate in movies because, well, that’s the nature of chemistry.
So “What If” has a sizable gift in the casting of Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who either have terrific chemistry together or are able to fake it expertly.
In the opening scene, their characters, Wallace and Chantry, bond over refrigerator magnets at a party and he walks her home. She mentions her boyfriend at the usual moment for such things, and that becomes the major impediment to a quick resolution of this mutual-attraction club.
They are in Toronto, which actually plays Toronto here, not an unnamed U.S. city. Chantry is an animator, which unfortunately means there are cartoon episodes in the film; longtime beau Ben (Rafe Spall) is about to depart for a six-month work contract in Dublin. Wallace is working a dull job after dropping out of med school because he caught his girlfriend cheating; now he’s living with pal Allan (Adam Driver, from “Girls”), whose new affair with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) isn’t helping Wallace’s mood.
Élan Mastai’s script depends on keeping the two leads apart, which can be a labored ploy (there’s one third-act delaying tactic that isn’t remotely credible) but can also result in the occasional “When Harry Met Sally” rom-com success.
If you can roll with said ploy, you will notice that the wisecracking zingers and cascading conversations rarely pause, and that when a quiet moment is required — a pause in the moonlight before deciding to skinny-dip, for instance — the film can handle it.
The cast is crammed with people who can deliver dialogue. Driver is consistently droll, and Megan Park delivers sidekick laughs as Chantry’s sister, who would not be averse to a fling with Wallace if Chantry isn’t going to act.
Radcliffe makes his somewhat pinched charm work nicely here, if there were any doubt left that he’s quite capable outside the “Harry Potter” universe. Kazan, late of “Ruby Sparks,” continues to impress, not least because she gives a very amusing physical performance.
Director Michael Dowse’s previous film was “Goon,” a funny hockey picture, which suggests his Canadian corner is a lively place to make movies right now.
“What If” (3 stars)
Terrific chemistry between Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan lifts this wise-cracking rom-com, about a guy who falls for a woman in a committed relationship. The movie’s full of funny people (Adam Driver and Megan Park included), and it zips right along.
Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter
Opening: Friday Aug. 8 at the Meridian and Lincoln Square theaters