IF review: John Krasinski and Ryan Reynolds aim (unsuccessfully) for Spielbergian wonder

IF review: John Krasinski and Ryan Reynolds aim (unsuccessfully) for Spielbergian wonder

When Steven Spielberg delivers a moment of wonder, it feels alchemic and infinite: a long-extinct Brachiosaurus lumbering into view, a gravity-defying bicycle, or the sun’s rays illuminating lost treasure. They’re also made to be singular, the culmination of a palpable sense of sweat, peril, or fear. These are lessons not learnt by IF, John Krasinski’s first family film as a director, following a pair of comedy-dramas (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars), his snazzy horror hit A Quiet Place, and its less impressive sequel.

IF is a story about discarded imaginary friends, who seek a new purpose with the help of Ryan Reynolds in suspenders. Krasinski wanted to make something for his own kids, whose imaginations he feared had been stunted over the Covid lockdown. It’s intended to be disarmingly sincere – yet the director-writer-actor is so single-mindedly intent on delivering “wonder” that what he’s ended up with isn’t so much a film but a series of emotional cues. It’s the same experience, really, as sitting down to watch an hour-and-a-half video loop of dogs being adopted.

In an extended opening montage, set to yet another stirring theme by composer Michael Giacchino (well known for “Married Life” from Pixar’s Up, one of the most tear-inducing bits of film score ever crafted), we’re introduced to Bea (Cailey Fleming) and her idyllic, relentlessly whimsical childhood. In distinctly Up-esque fashion, it’s revealed Bea’s mother died of cancer. Sometime after, her father (Krasinski, in the role of best dad ever) ends up in hospital, awaiting heart surgery. Bea starts to see odd creatures scampering about the place, which leads her directly to Reynolds’s Cal – who can apparently see them, too.

He runs a home for these imaginary friends (“ifs”) – this, by the way, happens to be the exact plot of a Cartoon Network animated series, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. Residents include Blue (voiced by Krasinski’s Office co-star Steve Carell), who is hairy and purple; Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a balletic butterfly who looks like the old inkblot cartoons from the 1920s; a unicorn voiced by the director’s partner, Emily Blunt; and a kitten voiced by Reynolds’s partner, Blake Lively.

The rest of the voice cast might as well be a read-out of Krasinski’s phone contacts, among them George Clooney (as an astronaut homage to Gravity), Matt Damon (as a dapper sunflower), Matthew Rhys (as a Shakespearean ghost), and Bradley Cooper (as a glass of ice water, companion to a chronically dehydrated kid).

It’s a noteworthy collection of celebrities, and all that VFX fur and fuzz is nicely tactile – but what’s most impressive about IF is that its director managed to land Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. And so, at times, the colour palette is deep enough, and the light so soft and heavenly, that it might almost convince you it’s actually a Spielberg original. Of course, that’s only an illusion. And the illusion dissipates the second anything or anyone moves.

Cailey Fleming and an imaginary friend (voiced by Steve Carell) in ‘IF’ (Paramount Pictures)
Cailey Fleming and an imaginary friend (voiced by Steve Carell) in ‘IF’ (Paramount Pictures)

Cal is thinly sketched out as a reclusive and beaten-down guy, which is directly contradicted by how often Reynolds whips out one of his now-trademark, Deadpoolian quips. It’s questionable how much here is actually tailored to children, unless they’re specifically fans of the coffee chain Ole & Steen or the music of Tina Turner.

And, while it might be too much to demand a film about imagination to adhere to any earthbound logic, the film’s climactic revelation throws up far too many unnecessary questions about Bea’s state of mind. Perhaps IF will successfully make its audience cry – but if it’s had to pull every trick in the book to do it, the achievement doesn’t quite feel the same.

Dir: John Krasinski. Starring: Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski, Fiona Shaw, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett Jr, Steve Carell. Cert 15, 133 mins

‘IF’ is in cinemas from 17 May