IF Review | As Comfortable as Fuzzy Slippers

by Andrew Parker

Writer/director/co-star John Krasinski’s IF is a pleasant enough bit of family entertainment that balances wide-eyed, childlike wonder with just a touch of darkness. It’s saccharine sweet at times, and it will probably test the endurance of battle hardened scrooges, but while Krasinski lays the emotions on with a thick, over-coated paintbrush, there’s no question or doubt that IF is coming from an honest desire to move the viewer. It’s full of eye candy and tear jerking moments, and while its overall premise and some of the plot developments are obvious and unoriginal, IF still flows with the conviction and good will of someone telling an elaborate bedtime story. It’s unashamedly corny, and I didn’t tear up like some members of my preview audience did, but IF gave me some good laughs and a sustained smile, and I think that’s more than enough.

Twelve year-old Bea (Cailey Fleming) is going to stay with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) in New York City, while her father (Krasinski) is in the hospital preparing for open heart surgery. Bea is understandably afraid, as she lost her mother a few years earlier, and while her dad tries to put on a happy, silly, and brave face for her, she remains unconvinced that everything is going to work out okay. Amid the changes in her life, Bea suddenly finds herself with the ability to see IFs, the abandoned imaginary friends that kids stop being able to see when they get too old and don’t see any use for them anymore. In fact, a couple of them – a huggable, naive purple monster (voiced by Steve Carell) and a doe-eyed cartoonish dancer (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) – live on the floor above Bea’s grandmother with Cal (Ryan Reynolds), a guy who can also see them and is struggling to settle the IFs in with new children or their now grown-up creators. Bea convinces Cal to take her under his wing, opening her up to a fantastical world full of boundless creative potential.

The plot of IF is actually a lot more convoluted than that, and none of it every fully adds up if one stops to think about it. Krasinski’s work feels like it has been either pared back from a much more ambitious vision in a bid to keep things snappy and kid friendly, or perhaps it feels slapdash on purpose, especially when one considers the weight the film’s own narrative places on the art of telling made up stories to keep the scariness of the world at bay. It’s about finding comfort, strength, and joy in one’s own imagination and the power stories have when there are things happening in life that can’t be immediately fixed or remedied. The sentiment is quite nice, and unlike something that’s trying to force feed the viewer sugary syrup, Krasinski’s work strikes a balance that’s always more entertaining than it is cloying. There’s no discernible sense of pacing whatsoever to IF, but things move along so briskly and happily that it’s hard to find fault unless you’re digging deep enough to look at it.

Visually, Krasinski and his team of production designers and effects artists have crafted an array of settings and characters that dazzle and delight. Aided immeasurably by the contributions of award winning cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski – who brings his golden touch and mastery of light manipulation to IF – the visuals have a nice combination of modern colour and old school New York City design. Making great use of old brownstones, dimly lit bodegas, and the layout of Coney Island, IF offers up a subtle, warm love letter to the Big Apple, and portrays it as a place where anything is possible. It might be a bit old timey in its goals, but again, one can’t knock a film for being effective.

The real appeal of IF, especially for younger viewers, will lie in the creature designs and the stacked list of top tier talents Krasinski has brought in to voice them all. Carell’s eminently squeezable try-hard is the ideal childhood best friend, and Bridge nicely matches the look of her character, which is straight out of 1940s cartoons and has a porcelain sheen. In one of his final roles, Louis Gossett Jr. warmly and thoughtfully embodies a well loved teddy bear that has founded a retirement home for imaginary friends (a setting that offers up some of the film’s most accomplished and surreal visuals). Similarly warm hearted and memorable is Richard Jenkins, as an unlikely art teacher. Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, and Bradley Cooper get to push their silly sides to the limit as a superhero dog, a levitating cloak and dagger gumshoe, and a sentient cup of water, respectively. Everyone tasked with playing an IF has shown up with a degree of enthusiasm and warmth, but beyond the casting, Krasinski and his team have found ways to ensure that no two of these characters look or sound anything alike, illustrating a wide range of childlike imagination and fantasy. These creations all look like they’re come from different movies altogether, and that’s exactly the point that needs to be conveyed to construct this larger world.

As for the human element, young Fleming shines as a kid that’s anything but precocious, and – in a nice change of pace for a story based in so much sadness – not morose or brooding. Fleming plays Bea as someone who’s still processing her situation, and is trying to keep things together the best that a kid can. Her interactions with Krasinski’s constantly wisecracking dad are quite tender, even though the older actor is doing bits that would seem right at home in a Robin Williams film from the late 90s. She worries, and she’s skeptical, but she’s still capable of letting her guard down and having a laugh. It’s a nice shift from the way these kinds of young characters going through stress and the stages of grief are often portrayed. For his part, Reynolds dials back his trademark sarcasm just a tad and goes for something a little more comforting, acting every bit like a cool uncle trying to show their younger relatives magic tricks and giving his younger co-star and the film’s visual effects ample room to shine. Special mention should also be given to rising young star Alan Kim, who most recently gave wonderful performances in Minari and Theater Camp, and steals a fair number of scenes as a jovial, whip-smart kid laid up in the hospital with multiple ailments.

In the wrong hands, IF could’ve been a pandering disaster, and it’s always just a few degrees away from tipping in the wrong direction. Thankfully, Krasinski is a savvy enough writer and director to ensure that the story never speaks down to the many weighty themes that are competing for attention amid all the whimsy. It’s not a particularly original film, with elements of familiar 80s and 90s crowd pleasers, story ideas that have come from the animated series Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends, and a big reveal that’s both obvious and taken from one of the most famous movies of all time. But IF also wants to be a balm for hard times, and when one thinks about all Krasinski tried to do during the pandemic to keep people entertained and hopeful, his aim is true and genuine. 

It’s the kind of movie where I expect a lot of more high minded critics to absolutely dunk all over it for being so cutesy, but also something destined to become a favourite of a lot of kids and the young at heart. I’m somewhere in the middle, although skewing a bit more towards the latter, simply because the film never resorts to anything out of character to goose the audience’s emotional triggers. IF isn’t subtle, and it’s definitely manipulative to some degree, but at least it isn’t forced or disingenuous. It’s a film that plays fair with the viewer, whether they ultimately connect with it or not.

IF opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 17, 2024.

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