The de-Potterization of Daniel Radcliffe continues. It’s still hard to imagine the now grown man as anything other than the lovable little orphan with a white owl and a magic wand, but he manages to make us forget, if just for a bit, in the romantic comedy “What If.”
It helps that Radcliffe, still boyish at 25, stars opposite Zoe Kazan. She’s 30, but with her big, bright eyes and irrepressible sense of wonder, she always looks a little like a girl playing dress-up. If Radcliffe’s Wallace were paired with anyone who looked more mature — or taller — we might be back to Square One, wondering when Hermione was going to come along and save the day. But Radcliffe and Kazan generate nice chemistry as two slightly awkward introverts who bond over Magnetic Poetry while trying to avoid small talk with strangers at a party.
To its credit, “What If” isn’t entirely formulaic. For one thing, the requisite obstacle between Wallace and Chantry’s happily ever after is Chantry’s perfectly pleasant (if certainly protective) live-in boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall). He’s not easy to dislike, and you could envision Ben and Chantry staying together and having a nice life.
“What If” is also more twee and foul-mouthed than your average spin on “When Harry Met Sally.” Scenes are intercut with cute little ditties as adorable animation flits across the screen. Yet everyone in the movie, from Chantry and Wallace to his best friend, Allan (Adam Driver, hilarious but basically playing Adam from “Girls,” as always), is obsessed with scatology. The amount of feces in Elvis Presley’s body when he died seems like a strange topic to add sparks to a fledgling romance, but Radcliffe and Kazan do their best to make it work. They are, after all, just friends, since she has a boyfriend. So maybe bathroom humor isn’t entirely out of place.
There’s also a fair amount of pratfalling, including a shocking yet laugh-out-loud moment during a dinner at which Wallace is supposed to meet Ben for the first time. And your run-of-the-mill big statement moment, when Wallace tries to profess his love — because of course they’re not really just friends — doesn’t go quite according to plan.
But even as “What If,” which was directed by Michael Dowse, veers slightly off the beaten path, we’re not completely out in the woods. There’s still quippy dialogue and near-kisses, outlandish supporting characters and a scene in a dressing room. (If life were a romantic comedy, we’d all be doing nothing but chatting over coffee and trying on clothes.)
Yet the fact that we’re still asking whether men and women can be friends — just friends — is exhausting. Sure, Harry and Sally couldn’t make it work, but does anyone outside of Hollywood screenwriters actually believe this is a question worth asking? If you can suspend your incredulity for a moment, “What If” has its bright moments. And that’s thanks in large part to its leads, who manage to do what Radcliffe has always done well: conjure up a little magic.
★ ★ ½
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual content, strong language, partial nudity and language.