IF is the sort of prodigious failure that only a very successful filmmaker can create. Only a director with a track record like John Krasinski could convince a studio to bankroll a film this egregiously saccharine and devoid of drama, and only a guy with a ton of pull in Hollywood could to recruit so many A-list stars to appear in it. Krasinski’s last two movies as a writer and director, the first A Quiet Place and its sequel, grossed more than $630 million for Paramount. They returned the favor by funding IF. 

The title is short for “imaginary friend”; for reasons the film does not explain, these particular imaginary creatures prefer to be called IFs. The premise goes something like this: All children create their own imaginary friends, but as they grow up, they mature, stop believing in them, and forget their IFs entirely. When that happens the IFs become invisible — but they still exist. Cast adrift without a purpose, these IFs wander around, unseen and unheard by all but a precious few special people who maintain the ability to recognize and communicate with them. (The movie does not fully explain how they can do this.)

Krasinski’s heroine, a girl named Bea (Cailey Fleming), has every right to have grown up fast. When she was very young, Bea’s mother died. Now 12 years old, Bea must grapple with another crisis: Her father (Krasinski) lies in a Brooklyn hospital bed, although his illness is another component of the film that defies explanation. He claims he is not sick, but he spends day after day in a Brooklyn hospital waiting for some kind of heart surgery. (He is literally suffering from a broken heart.)

Krasinski’s character is so sick he can’t leave the hospital or take care of his daughter, but he’s also healthy enough that he never wears a hospital gown and can walk freely around his hospital room playing pranks on Bea and his incredibly patient nurse (The Bear’s Liza Colón-Zayas). One time he performs an elaborate soft-shoe routine for both of them using his IV bag as his dance partner; he even dresses it up with fake hair, eyes, and lips. Laughter is the best medicine, you see. Bea’s dad seems like the kind of guy who gives copies of Patch Adams to his friends every year as Christmas gifts.

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Stuck in his hospital room awaiting whatever treatment you get for a bad heart and a near-terminal case of cutesy dad jokes, Krasinski’s Dad orders Bea to go enjoy the summer in Brooklyn without him. With her absent-minded grandma (Fiona Shaw) distracted by Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey on the television, Bea soon begins exploring the streets of New York City alone.

While out wandering Brooklyn Heights alone late one night, Bea discovers the existence of an IF named Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who looks like a cross between Mickey Mouse and an old-timey flapper. She leads Bea to Cal (Ryan Reynolds), Bea’s upstairs neighbor who can also see these wayward imaginary creatures — much to his chagrin.

Because Cal is the only one who can see the IFs (at least until Bea), and because they refuse to leave him alone, he’s taken it upon himself to become a sort of matchmaker for them; he finds them new children to bond with and in exchange they stop pestering him. With IFs like the eight foot tall snaggletoothed pile of purple fur Blue (Steve Carell) constantly crowding into his apartment to sneeze on him, it’s easy to see why Cal wants these things out of his life.

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But that’s also a problem with the movie. Despite the human characters’ constant insistence on the importance of imagination and joy, the IFs are more of an irritant than a source of childlike wonderment. Reynolds, who’s never been more miscast in a role, has very little to play beyond Cal’s constant frustration with his job (a job he has given himself for no apparent reason until very late in the movie). He constantly harrumphs around as he endures Blue’s antics and Bea’s skepticism and the needs of all of the other IFs. He looks miserable.

The only person who seems to really love these IFs is Krasinski, who clearly adores the concept of these walking, talking personifications of all that is good and pure in the world. He’s so enraptured by their sheer existence, though, that he didn’t really think through any of the logic around them. How do you pair an IF with a new kid? The movie doesn’t say. If ordinary kids are the ones creating these IFs, why can’t kids see them as they walk around the streets of New York? The movie doesn’t explain that either. Later, Cal takes Bea to a retirement home for IFs, which is located beneath an inexplicably deserted Luna Park in Coney Island. Why is Coney Island a ghost town in the middle of the summer? Who knows. The retirement home has a seemingly endless number of rooms and activities; the IFs get to live together, put on concerts, watch television, whatever they want. So why do they need new kids so badly? They seem to be doing okay for themselves!

I imagine Krasinski would say my left-brained need to understand how these IFs actually work is further proof of his movie’s importance. Cynical, soul-dead mopes like me have lost all sight of the need for sincere belief in magic. In fact, working stiffs like me don’t believe in anything anymore! If only we could see the magic all around us, life would be so much better.

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There might be a kernel of wisdom in that sentiment. The problem with IF isn’t the message; it’s the way that message is delivered, in a boring and often confusing fable with barely any conflict and shockingly little comedy for a movie starring Reynolds, Carell, Waller-Bridge, and many more of Hollywood’s funniest stars. (Bobby Moynihan shows up in a small but important supporting role; he doesn’t get a single laugh.)

As a director, Krasinski is a pro working with top-notch technical craftsmen; his cinematographer on IF is multiple Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski, who infuses each frame with beams of warm light and effervescent pops of color. And the IFs themselves look very convincing. You can believe in the reality of this world from the look of it alone, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

We so rarely get bad movies like IF these days, when Hollywood’s main impulse is not to create art but to prolong and protect the value of intellectual property at all cost. Most blockbusters are focus-grouped and test-marketed until every last shred of quirky personality has been drained out of them. They are coldly targeted at the maximum number of possible viewers.

IF, on the other hand, is a passion project with no obvious audience; it’s too slow and depressing for children and too maudlin and cutesy for adults. It loudly yells at audiences they need to have some fun, while not actually providing any fun itself. It harkens back to another time, when a big-name director could bank on himself and get an original idea into theaters, no matter how murkily thought through it was. I did not enjoy it, but I can imagine a world where more films made in its spirit exist.

Additional Thoughts:

-I have never seen a movie with this many suspenders. Everyone wears suspenders. Reynolds wears suspenders. Fleming wears suspenders. Even some of the IFs wear suspenders! What does an imaginary being need with straps that hold their pants up? Did Big Suspender fund the movie as suspender propaganda?

-IF reminded me primarily of two movies. One was Tomorrowland, another film from a talented director trying to impart a deeply felt message via a big budget held hostage by a turgid story and endless sermonizing. The other movie it reminded me of is a spoiler, so you‘ll have to ask me about it after you see the film.

-The only part of IF I enjoyed was playing the game “Guess the Voice of the IF.” Krasinski apparently called in every favor he was owed in the movie business and got some of the biggest names in Hollywood to show up to voice his imaginary astronauts and giant gummy bears, and sentient flowers. Literally every IF is played by an extremely famous actor and/or Oscar winner. Under other circumstances, this guessing game could have been distracting. In this case, I was glad to have that distraction.

RATING: 3/10

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