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Review: A family comedy, 'IF' tries a bit too hard find its whimsy

Adam Graham, The Detroit News on

Published in Entertainment News

Imaginary friends. That's something, right?

It certainly could be, but "IF" never quite figures out what to do with its premise, past the point of bringing a group of imaginary friends to life.

Cailey Fleming and Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) in "IF."

This undercooked family comedy weeper from writer-director John Krasinski ("A Quiet Place" and its sequel) seems stuck in script development mode, like no one knew what to do with it past its title. "IF" comes alive thanks to its strong visual style, but large stretches of it flounder about, as its central conceit hopes to smooth over its many rough patches.

It does, in part. Cailey Fleming stars as Bea, a 12-year-old whose father (Krasinski) is getting ready to undergo a life-threatening surgery. She has already lost her mother to cancer and isn't ready to say goodbye to another parent. She suddenly discovers her ability to see people's imaginary friends — IFs for short — and is led into a world of IFs by Cal (Ryan Reynolds), her upstairs neighbor in her grandmother's Brooklyn Heights apartment building.

These IFs — they include a giant fluffy purple monster named Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) who is like an extra from "Monsters, Inc.," and Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who comes off like a cross between Betty Boop and a butterfly — are lost because the people who thought them up as kids are all grown up and no longer have any use for them.

That wouldn't seem to be a problem — they're imaginary, after all — but Krasinski's script trips over itself to make it an issue, as Bea and Cal form a detective agency of sorts to reconnect adults with their childhood IFs. It's about connecting to a time of purity, or innocence, or something; Krasinski's forced sense of whimsy, complete with old-timey details (multiple characters wear suspenders), supersedes any sense of tangible stakes. Mostly, movies like this always want us to stay connected to our childhoods so we buy more toys from them.

Reynolds' Cal is constantly flummoxed, because putting him in a state of frustration allows him to do that wry, sardonic Ryan Reynolds thing he does. (He's forever tripping over an invisible IF, the film's most tepid running physical gag.) Voice cameos are provided by Sam Rockwell, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins, Blake Lively and others, including the late Louis Gossett Jr. who voices a kind, elder teddy bear. (It's worth nothing that "IF" is set in the 1990s, seemingly for no other reason than it was easier to connect to our imaginations when we all didn't constantly have smartphones in our hands.)

If Reynolds is never fully able to lock into his groove, Fleming is spunky and resonant in the lead role, and she carries the film's dramatic baggage well.

 

There's not quite a twist in "IF," but there is a revelation that is right there on the surface the whole time, and it connects the story to childhood fears and the places we go to escape that which we cannot face head-on. It doesn't rescue the story but it does make it about something larger than the imaginary world it inhabits, and gives viewers an opportunity to connect to something real.

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'IF'

Grade: C+

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

Running time: 1:44

Where to watch: in theaters

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