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‘IF’ review: Ryan Reynolds and loads of sugar can’t help this medicine go down

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Published: May 19, 2024, 6:02am

“IF” may get by. It’s sincere. As the song from “The Music Man” asks: How can there be any sin in that?

It’s also maudlin enough to force you into a defensive emotional crouch for an hour and 44 minutes. I speak for an audience of one here. Others may experience an entirely different set of side effects to a movie with a weirdly groggy and medicinal aura.

As his popular success with the first two “Quiet Place” monster movies asserted, writer-director John Krasinski knows how to balance thrills and miles and miles and miles of heart. He’s a pro at prolonging and screw-tightening a scene where something enormous and potentially scary is about to leap into frame. The same thing happens in “IF,” a lot, this time to mild “gotcha!” comic effect.

The fantasy this time concerns Bea, a wise, empathetic, privately grieving 12-year-old played by the first-rate and periodically movie-saving Cailey Fleming (of “The Walking Dead”). Bea’s mother has been dead for some time. The girl visits her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), while her practical joke-addicted father (Krasinski, seriously misjudging the average human’s tolerance for practical jokes) undergoes tests for heart trouble in the very same hospital where Bea’s mother died.

In Brooklyn, New York, on magically shining streets and in sun-drenched interiors provided by cinematographer and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, Bea finds herself beset by a series of imaginary friends, most of them long separated from their human companions of old. “IF” sets up a scenario in which Bea and former clown Cal, now a testy, sullen lost soul played by Ryan Reynolds in a similarly thwarted limbo state, start a matchmaking agency to reunite the IFs with their now-adult companions, or else find suitable new matches. Their IF colleague is Blossom, an animated early Disney-esque creation voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. There are some promising ideas afoot. The IFs, the most prominent being the purple goofball Blue voiced by Steve Carell, reside beneath Coney Island in a magical retirement home. The voice casting boasts plenty of talent and fame, from George Clooney (as an astronaut IF) to Emily Blunt (as a unicorn IF) to the late Louis Gossett Jr., as a wise and mellow Teddy bear, Lewis. It’s genuinely sweet to hear Gossett Jr.’s easygoing delivery one more time.

Krasinski hasn’t overplotted his story, exactly, but it’s heavily padded and dangerously light on actual jokes. Reynolds’ Cal is all impatience with next to no story reason for being, besides one big reason sprung at the end. At its core, “IF” deals with rampant anxieties coated in honey, a one-two combination deployed in countless stories beloved by both children and adults. But whimsy that periodically goes for the throat is not easy to pull off. “IF” reminds us how certain key ingredients — charm, wit, clarity, emotional tact and resonance — cannot be willed into narrative existence, or fixed in post.

At one crucial juncture Bea, promised earlier by her father that he will not die on her, is put through the wringer not knowing if he’s dead or alive, even though the saintly nurse perpetually on call (Liza Colón Zayas of “The Bear”) makes it super clear in the preceding scene that he’ll be fine. I mean, anything’s possible in a health crisis. But I’m not sure Krasinski was clear on his own intentions at this point, other than to jack us around a little for sport.

The larger issue is one of messaging. “IF” caters to a young audience, of course, and to fathers and daughters everywhere, as well as parents and adult guardians who’ve given up on the wonderment of childhood and the sweet innocence of made-up friends and the tonic of pure imagination. Character to character, the script sells everyone’s emotional lives short. It’s a strangely scold-y sort of heart-yanker, calling out the ignorance of grown-ups who ditched their IFs and childhood treasures as they grew up. Pixar digs this idea the most, as we know, and the best Pixar films brake right at the edge of shameless pathos while surprising us with little details and larger, deeper emotional crossroads. “IF” feels like well-meaning guesswork, with an eye toward the suspiciously familiar. When humans and IFs find each other again, it’s the heart-light routine from “E.T.” When the sadness of the abandoned IFs dominates the narrative, it’s like watching “Inside Out” populated entirely by Bing Bongs.

Not that it was written for kids, but millions of us adored the Mary Chase stage fantasy “Harvey” at a young age, or any age, the one about tippler and philosopher Elwood P. Dowd and his undeniable 6-foot invisible rabbit friend. Krasinski loves it, too; twice in “IF,” we’re shown scenes from the 1950 James Stewart film version. The lack of harsh language in “IF” may be reassurance enough for families today, though the general, nattering sourness of the banter in Krasinski’s story is something of a drag.

The biggest surprise? The great film composer Michael Giacchino gives “IF” a cruelly insistent childlike musical theme that may be the first substandard leitmotif he has ever written. By the 90-minute mark, that theme — and the movie it captures all too well — may have you wishing upon a star for a cameo appearance by one of the extraterrestrials from “A Quiet Place.”


‘IF’

1.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for thematic elements and mild language)

Running time: 1:44

How to watch: In theaters

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