Casting a spell over cinemagoers is a piece of wizardry even Harry Potter
would be hard-pushed to pull off – yet that is precisely the challenge his
alter ego, Daniel Radcliffe, has set himself.
Later this month, Radcliffe, the diminutive actor seared into the national
psyche as a bespectacled schoolboy from Hogwarts, will return to the big
screen, this time playing a romantic lead. In What If, he must not only
convince us that his character is worthy of the love of his leading lady,
but that the rom-com – a genre once so integral to our cinema-viewing habits
– is back to stay.
The film, already being dubbed “When Harry Potter Met Sally”, centres on the
age-old quandary that formed the basis of the Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan
double-hander 25 years ago: can men and women ever just be friends? On
paper, there are eerie similarities between the two. Not only do Radcliffe
and his co-star, US actress Zoe Kazan, bear a passing resemblance to the
kooky-looking Crystal and Ryan, but their film ticks a host of other rom-com
boxes. There’s a taller, hapless male friend who provides a shoulder to cry
on; an attractive but potentially manipulative sister; and the backdrop of a
hip North American city – here, Toronto.
But 20 years after Richard Curtis redefined the genre with Four Weddings and a
Funeral, and the foppish Hugh Grant cemented himself as the ultimate rom-com
hero, is anyone interested in this type of movie any more? And can
baby-faced Radcliffe win our hearts in the way Tom Hanks in Sleepless in
Seattle (1993) or Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping (1995) did?
Recent comedic offerings have moved away from the traditional boy-meets-girl
plot, featuring either greying protagonists (Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin
in It’s Complicated) or the gross-out humour of Bridesmaids. Even rom-com
regulars such as Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality) have turned their back
on the format in favour of meatier, “real-life” roles encompassing
parenthood and broken homes. Hanks, too, hasn’t appeared in one for more
than a decade. (Then again, they are getting on a bit.)
Radcliffe, eager to distance himself from Harry Potter – by appearing naked on
stage in Equus, as a disabled Irish orphan in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and
in the horror film Woman in Black – is certainly a left-field choice for
a rom-com hero.
Yet he thinks the style – and the role it requires of him – is timeless. “The
fundamental nature of men and women hasn’t shifted in the years between When
Harry Met Sally and this film,” Radcliffe insists.
As Wallace, a medical school drop-out with a history of failed romances, he
meets Chantry – making fridge-magnet poetry at a party – only to discover
that she has a live-in boyfriend of five years and so their relationship
must be platonic.
“Everyone will have been in some version of this relationship at one time or
another, and I think there’s something so exciting and so intimate about
watching two people fall in love,” Radcliffe says. But he does admit:
“Dating has changed and the way we think about relationships has changed
because of technological advances.”
And this is the twist that may take more than a magic wand to overcome. For
though this film has scored critical acclaim ahead of its release, there is
a reason behind the dearth of rom-coms in recent years: in modern Britain
and the US, people once set up on dates by friends now meet their partners
online, via apps like Tinder or dating agencies. Fewer still believe in the
concept of one true love (just a quarter of respondents in a 2010 survey by
research organisation Pew). And so, in their bid to keep up with social
trends, scriptwriters lost interest in following the footsteps of fêted
rom-com creators such as Nora Ephron, John Hughes and Cameron Crowe.
So what to make of this very modern love story and its unconventional hero?
Helen O’Hara, of film buffs’ bible Empire, thinks returning to the bygone
age of movie-making is no bad thing – as long as it is backed up by a decent
“Internet dating doesn’t really make a good basis for a film, because it has
none of the cinematic impact of being rescued by Matthew McConaughey from a
dumpster when your heel gets stuck,” she says. “There was a dip in rom‑coms
in recent years because the lead characters weren’t believable. How many of
us could buy into a story whose premise is that the impossibly beautiful
Jessica Alba had trouble getting dates?”
But romantic comedies, she believes, will endure. “Radcliffe may be the latest
in a long line of not traditionally tall-and-hunky male leads, such as Woody
Allen in Annie Hall or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, to win us over.”
I’ll have to see it to believe it. No offence to the boy wizard, but that
really would be magic.
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