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What If a Movie Called IF Found an Audience?

I didn't expect much from John Krasinski's fantasy "IF" because the reviews were mostly unimpressed. But I found it quite easy to love because it's written and directed in a sneakily effective way, presenting its peculiar situations as the sorts of things you would expect to see in a big-budget movie, even though the entire project seems to have been assembled through dream logic. I heard a lot of people crying during the afternoon showing I attended. I was one of them. And here's the really interesting thing, which I believe stands the film in good stead: we weren't all sniffling at the same scene. The movie seemed to hit different people's sentimental triggers at different times. I watched this happen around me with appreciation and some amusement until a scene came that got me right in the heart and turned me into a mess, too.

The plot? Oh, right, I'm supposed to talk about that. There is one. I've read a lot of gripes to the effect that it has too much plot, or that the plot doesn't make sense or is implausible or full of holes, etc. I don't think it's a plot kind of movie, honestly, but just to set the rest of this piece up, here goes: It's about a young girl named Bea (Cailey Fleming) who moves to Brooklyn to live with her grandmother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) while her dad (John Krasinski) is awaiting surgery in the same hospital where her mother died of cancer a few years earlier. We don't get many details of the father's condition, but we're led to believe he's in the hospital to get treated for having a broken heart. It's that kind of movie, yes.

One night, Bea goes out to buy a charger for an old camcorder so she can watch videos of herself with her mom and dad. You probably can't buy an old camcorder charger at night in New York City—in fact you probably have to buy it from a specific vendor online—and it's probably not advisable for a little kid to go unsupervised after dark in the biggest city in America. I mention that here because it's the kind of thing that's been mentioned by people who don't like the film and I wanted to take a second to say "It doesn't matter." Anyway, when Bea is out at night, she sees her first Imaginary Friend (abbreviated IF) sneaking around in the neighborhood. This is Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a sort of black-and-white, Betty Boop-looking humanoid butterfly creature.

When Bea sees Blossom again, she's accompanied by a man named Cal (Ryan Reynolds), who coincidentally lives in her grandma's building and is heading up the Memory Lane Retirement Home for Imaginary Friends, a secret facility in Coney Island hidden beneath the Ferris wheel. According to the film's lore, children outgrow and forget about their IFs as they get older, leaving the creatures bereft and isolated. (There's thematic overlap with the "Toy Story" movies in this regard.) There have been complaints that not everybody had an imaginary friend as a child and that it's weird to act like they did. I don't know what to say about stuff like this, or the concerns about Bea going out by herself after dark, except that it's an example of the kind of nitpicking that the movie has zero interest in catering to, so this paragraph will be the last time I'll bring that sort of thing up.

The roster of IFs gets more populous as the movie goes on, giving Krasinski a chance to cast a lot of his famous friends in voice parts, including Steve Carell as Blue, a fuzzy giant who's actually purple; Emily Blunt as a unicorn; and Bill Hader as a banana who works as a water aerobics instructor at the retirement home. A plan is hatched to find the now-adult creators of the IFs and reunite them with their old chums. Without putting too fine a point on it, the movie advocates reconnecting with childhood sources of wonder and comfort because many of the traumas we face in the adult world are rooted in childhood. 

This is probably going to sound strange because they're very different movies, but the two films that "IF" most reminded me of are Steven Spielberg's "E.T." and the original 1971 "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," the one with Gene Wilder as Wonka. From "Wonka," "IF" borrows a matter-of-fact, at times Roald Dahl-like presentation of fantastic situations and characters, which are unveiled in a series of scenes so self-contained that it sometimes feels as if you're watching a collection of short films (and in a couple of cases, music videos) with recurring characters. (The deadpan energy of Reynolds' character is often Wonka-esque. So is his quasi-magician outfit.) 

From "E.T.," and Spielberg's fantasies generally, the movie adopts an earnest, focused attitude towards big, simple emotions, something that was more common in old movies than it is now. "IF" is one of the rare recent movies that wants to build a bridge between past and present modes and technologies. The 1950 movie version of "Harvey," starring James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, a man who claims to have an imaginary friend who's a giant rabbit, plays on a TV in "IF." As it happens, the dog in "E.T." is also named Harvey, and a character named Elwood P. Dowd founded the city in the animated series "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends." Plus, "IF" was shot by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer for over 30 years, and has that Spielbergian shafts-of-light-through-dusty-air look, as well as a channeling-John-Williams score by Michael Giacchino, and the confidence just to say, "This is the world the character live in, now let's just roll with it and not feel like we have to explain everything." 

Which is to say that "IF" is part of a pop culture continuum and is consciously trying to be. Having Bea's dad be in the hospital for a broken heart is like something out of Spielberg's "Hook" or "The BFG" (which was based on a Dahl book). A lot of Bea's reactions to the imaginary creatures and Cal's stewardship of the retirement home are reminiscent of the sequence in "E.T." where little Elliott finds the extraterrestrial in his backyard, invites him into his room , and immediately begins showing him his toys. It's kid logic applied to an entire movie. And it's marvelous, because kid logic and dream logic are very close. 

Krasinski has an improv-trained actor's ability to roll with the energy of a situation and try to see how long he can keep it going. The answer here is always, "As long as I can, if it seems like the kind of thing an audience might want more of." The movie really starts to cook during an extended performance of Tina Turner's "You Better Be Good to Me" (jumping off from a childhood video of Bea singing and dancing to the Turner video) that puts a bunch of imaginary friends in a choreographed number and expands throughout the entire length of the song, transforming the place in accordance with Bea's ideas. There are several other long or long-ish scenes that roll with the energy of a moment that's working. Another good one focuses on the IF who runs the retirement home, a nearly 100-year-old teddy bear named Lewis (voice by Louis Gossett, Jr., to whom the movie is dedicated); the movie takes us back in time to 100 years ago, when the Coney Island boardwalk was a very different place, and the point is not merely to advance a plot point but to hang out in a time period very different from ours, with a different (slower) rhythm.

I didn't much care for Krasinski's two "A Quiet Place" movies (though the scares and performances were effective). But with "IF" as a chaser, I think I understand what kind of a filmmaker he is, and am inclined to respect it. He presents fantastic situations in a pretty straightforward way. He doesn't feel obligated to constantly explain every individual element in a piece in terms of real-world logic, whatever that even means in the context of fiction, to satisfy people whose movie-watching brains were poisoned by YouTube channels that don't like or understand movies and exist mainly to monetize complaining. This movie is so simple and cheerful, in a low-key way, that I think I understand why some people are suspicious of it, but I was surprised by how much I loved it.

Oh, yeah, about the scene that got me: it involves a character going through a record collection. The collection just happens to contain a recording of Aram Khachaturian's music for the ballet Spartacus. My heart leapt when that album appeared onscreen, and leapt again when it was pulled from the bin, and yet again when the needle hit the vinyl. I realized that, for some amazing reason, the movie was going to build a sequence around my favorite composition from the entire ballet, "Adagio of Spartacus and Phyrigia," which was also used in "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "Ice Age 2."  The spirit of that piece of music is the spirit of "IF." There's nothing self-aware, ironic, or otherwise knowing about it. It's pure and unaffected. It's entranced by its own capacity for wonder, and has good reason to be. 

I don't know why Krasinski chose that particular piece or thought up the sequence that uses it so beautifully, but it got me. Oh, boy, did it get me. Did you ever have a moment when you thought, "This movie understands me," even though you had no expectation of feeling that way going in? That's what happened here. I need to see this movie again soon. You should see it, too, if you haven't already.  

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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