Love, Actually

Love, Actually

The F Word, starring Daniel Radcliffe in his post–Harry Potter prime, is a lo-fi love story for the digital age—and the most authentic romantic comedy in years

Love, Actually
(Image: courtesy of eOne Entertainment)

The new movie The F Word begins with a vintage rom-com meet-cute. At a house party, Wallace, a witty med-school dropout played by Daniel Radcliffe, spells out “Love is stupid monkeys” with word magnets on a fridge. His poetry draws the attention of a pretty animator, Chantry (portrayed by Zoe Kazan), sparking an instant romantic connection—but Chantry has a boyfriend, so she and Wallace embark on a fraught friendship. The F Word—renamed What If in the States—examines whether a man and woman can have a platonic relationship despite their mutual attraction. It’s a sweet, smart millennial spin on When Hary Met Sally.

In the late ’90s, the rom-com was one of Hollywood’s most lucrative genres. Films like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Jerry Maguire and Notting Hill easily grossed over $100 million apiece, attracting, and creating, the world’s biggest stars: Julia, Renée, Meg, Hugh, the Toms. They were glossy fantasies, plying comfortable formulas and happy endings that mirrored the era’s boom-time optimism.

Then the world changed. Prosperity vanished with the Great Recession, and dating and romance shifted from bars and blind dates to Tinder, Grindr and ­OkCupid. The rom-com lagged behind, producing tone-deaf love stories about wealthy professionals enjoying gorgeous apartments, successful careers and tech-free courtships. Believable, nuanced characters were replaced with stock types, like the shrill, work-obsessed shrew and the smarmy ladies’ man. Faced with lousy scripts and ­unlikable leads, audiences fled. Last year, only one rom-com ranked among the 100 top-­grossing films (the zombie flick Warm Bodies).

Yet during that decline, a new wave of sleeper rom-coms gradually emerged: lo-fi, relatable films like 500 Days of ­Summer, Friends With Kids and The Spectacular Now. They featured characters who lived in recognizably messy, small apartments and held make-ends-meet jobs. Their love stories substituted happy endings for uncertainty and formula for complexity: great love that fell victim to personal baggage, career aspirations or incompatibility. They felt refreshingly real.

The F Word is a paradigm of the new form—an emotionally honest, cuddly update for a post-Tinder cultural landscape. The director, Michael Dowse, and screenwriter, Elan ­Mastai, have created ­characters who behave like actual 20-somethings: ­Wallace is a cubicled manual writer who summarizes his life as “dead-end job, lives in his sister’s attic, never goes out”; Chantry lives in a cramped studio apartment. Like their millennial compatriots, they see their phones as extensions of themselves—he finds meaningful breakup closure by deleting a voicemail from his ex; she avoids an awkward interaction by checking her texts at a strategic moment. Just as Harry and Sally’s friendship bloomed over late-night phone calls, Wallace and Chantry get to know each other over text and email.

The movie plays like a greatest hits of modern courtships, capturing the intoxicating fizz of early love: the paranoid agony of texting word choices, the all-night conversations, the lusty magnetism of half-naked bodies, the Ping-Pong of teasing flirtation. Those moments in the film—stoked by Radcliffe and Kazan’s terrific chemistry—resonate so deeply that you don’t watch The F Word so much as luxuriate in it. And rather than feed its audience a formulaic wish-fulfillment fantasy, the film challenges us with real-world complications. Of course we want Wallace and Chantry to get together, but the movie asks whether that’s worth the dissolution of a healthy relationship (between Chantry and her nice-guy boyfriend, Ben). In The F Word, happily ever after comes at a price.

Those genre-warping tricks are what make the movie simultaneously familiar and surprising. It deftly twists and tweaks the rom-com’s traditional tropes into something far truer to life. Allan, the horny numbskull friend (played by the frequently shirtless Girls star Adam Driver) becomes the star of his own sweet romance. Ben, Chantry’s boyfriend and happy-ending obstacle, is a genuinely good guy you don’t want to see hurt. The clichéd airport dash is brilliantly skewered: Wallace flies to Ireland—where Chantry is visiting Ben—to declare his feelings, only to see his plan dissolve into a boy-loses-girl catastrophe.

The movie triggers a kind of cinematic muscle memory, implicating the audience in the fundamental question of every classic rom-com: “Will they get together?” That question generates quiet tension and addictively watchable momentum. We genuinely want this couple to live happily ever after in a way we haven’t since watching Bridget Jones’s Diary or Notting Hill.

With a weird alchemy of realism and fantasy, reinvention and familiarity, The F Word heralds the future of the rom-com. It proves that the new renditions don’t have to be big-budget behemoths with groan-worthy gimmicks. Instead, they capture small moments and knotty emotions, to be consumed in the way we increasingly watch movies now: on tablets and phones, via torrents, Netflix or video-on-demand. There they’ll meet the true criteria for rom-com success: whether they resonate with the viewer and yet—with that little bit of movie stardust—offer tidier, happier versions of ourselves.

The F Word
Starring Daniel Radcliffe
In theatres now