The F Word (2014)
Dir: Michael Dowse
The best romantic comedies snap and crackle with the pop of witty dialogue and effervescent chemistry. It’s a genre that has embraced and embodies many hoary clichés, yet can also transcend them when the right elements align. The F Word (renamed What If outside of Canada) is Daniel Radcliffe’s latest post-Potter pic, and it falls somewhere in between those two extremes.
The movie opens, as all films of its ilk must, with Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace meeting-cute with Zoe Kazan’s Chantry. Wallace is thawing out after a long post-breakup hibernation and Chantry embodies all the manic pixie dream girl ideals that we’ve come to expect from modern rom-coms. The twist? Chantry has a boyfriend and is only looking for a friend (the titular F Word). It’s an intriguing setup and one that could have legs in the right hands. Radcliffe is game, if a little overmatched, and Kazan shines in the kind of a role that she could easily make a career of.
As Wallace and Chantry’s friendship grows, a kind of “will they or won’t they?” stasis is established that the movie looks to draw tension from. After an initial period apart, the couple reunites at a late night screening of The Princess Bride (at Toronto’s The Royal Cinema!), bringing to mind the indelible first scene that Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette share in True Romance. Sporadic fantasy sequences recall Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but are so rare that they feel out of place. There is chemistry between the leads, but it’s lost amid a jumble of side plots and dialogue that often doesn’t ring true. There is, however, some lovely animation woven into the film. This too is tied to a subplot about Chantry’s tattoo that should feel significant, but upon its reveal comes off as another shrug. Other subplots left dangling: the relationship between Wallace and his young nephew, and between Wallace and his ex.
As director, Michael Dowse showcases Toronto well but fails to bring the same live-wire energy and surprising sincerity he wielded in modern day little-seen classics like Fubar and Goon. Toronto does get the rare occasion to play itself on screen, and this is hammered home by having the CN Tower in the background of roughly 50% of the shots. The movie does have bright spots – while some of the dialogue feels overly mannered, it can occasionally shine with a lived-in feel that recalls the best of Apatow. Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis play a bizarro couple that got together immediately instead of drawing out their romance, and their scenes are funny if too few. Megan Park is fun as Chantry’s sister and Rafe Spall acquits himself well in the thankless role of Chantry’s boyfriend.
A movie, regardless of genre, makes an implicit contract with the viewer that asks them to believe in the shared illusion constructed between the two. The F Word falls short in this regard in that it asks viewers to believe in a romance between characters whose motivations can change from one scene to the next. This is typified in the 3rd-act crisis that has to temporarily separate the central couple before (spoiler!) they can come together in one sense or another. The crisis comes out of nowhere and a main character takes offence when none is warranted, squandered the good will built up to that point. In the end, some nice cinematography and a stellar cast with chemistry to spare can’t overcome some of the plotting’s shortfalls. I can’t help but think that there’s a better version of The F Word out there on the cutting room floor, but in its current form it falls somewhere in the middle of the road. In a genre full of soaring heights and deep lows, that may not be enough to set it apart.