Try as they may, any filmmakers’ attempts to avoid the categorization of their respective works by genre is pretty much impossible in this day and age, especially since studios and audiences alike compulsively reach for any kind of categorical notion, regardless of its flexibility. While convenient, it also becomes predictably problematic when considering the tight structure of efficient film narrative. As such, while imitation may be considered a form flattery, it can also lead to films that do little in the way of separating themselves from established genre norms. Numerous examples can be given, but the romantic comedy genre in particular (otherwise known as rom-com), given its excessive bankability, is used and abused to shameless degrees.
Thankfully, that allows us to appreciate the films which transcend the genre all the more, with entries such as 500 Days of Summer and The Big Sick gaining particular acclaim for their offbeat approaches to the otherwise tired conventions of romantic comedy. While I would not consider Michael Dowse’s 2013 release The F Word in such a high regard, given its blatant submission to certain predictable aspects of the genre, the film still shines as a feel-good romantic comedy that benefits from a witty script and immense chemistry between its two leads.
Firmly set in the city of Toronto (depicted as something of a character in its own right), The F Word tells the tale of Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who meet at a party one night only form an instant connection. While the sparks immediately fly, Chantry is in a secure, long-term relationship with her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), so she and Wallace keep their budding feelings at bay, which proves to be increasingly difficult the closer they become.
As with most other romantic comedies, I was instinctively tentative in its opening moments, but the exuberant chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan quickly put my mind at ease. I believe this to be the foundation of any competent rom-com, as even the slightest stiffness between the leads could single-handedly sink the film as a whole. It is the equivalent of an action film with toothless set-pieces.
But I digress.
The exchanges between Radcliffe and Kazan are as consistently palpable as the city in which it is based, all the while being elevated by a well-executed soundtrack that never overstates itself. While both actors offer up great performances, it is Kazan who has been quietly establishing herself as one of the most malleable actresses in the com-com genre, delivering effortlessly harmonious performances opposite her love interests in the likes of Ruby Sparks (which she also wrote) and the aforementioned The Big Sick.
Regrettably, though, not every relationship is as fully realized by Mastai’s screenplay. Wallace’s sister and nephew, with whom he lives, lack any substantial significance in the grand scheme of things, and I found myself yearning that greater purpose be afforded to their characters. They are established relatively early in the film, and only with their reemergence later in the narrative am I even reminded of their sheer existence. An impression could have been made, but alas, Wallace’s family are never given the chance, which is all the more disappointing given they could have been the catalysts of some significant watershed moment for his character late in the film.
That is not to say the development of Wallace’s character is in any way squandered. On the contrary, I found Wallace to be a carefully considered characterization who is neither a hopeless romantic nor an overbearing cynic. Instead, he is a seamless combination of the two, grounded by a set of ethics that add meaningful depth to his character.
This is true of other characters too, especially Chantry’s boyfriend Ben. Ben is a hard-working lawyer employed as a Canadian representative for the United Nations, who unquestionably loves Chantry. The lawyer in him cross-examines Wallace upon their first meeting, rightfully scrutinizing his intentions with Chantry, but Mastai and Dowse sensibly avoid framing Ben as a villain, which shields The F Word from a well-worn rom-com cliché.
My main concerns, however, lie with aspects of the film that do not gel with the overall approach to its tone and subject matter. At the center of this is the seemingly random bringing-to-life of a tattoo Chantry has on her back, whether it be jumping from a page in her sketchbook, or materialising in a star constellation. The animated pixie, like her tattoo, represents Chantry’s mother, who she lost at a young age, and while I do at least understand the emotional reasoning, as well as it’s animation being a reference to Chantry’s own profession as an animator, I struggle to find the substance in it all. Ultimately, it comes across as nothing more than a hokey attempt at stylistic depth, especially when its aforementioned manifestation in a starry sky is the last image to which we are eye-rollingly exposed.
While on the topic of its concluding moments, I think The F Word would have prospered from less hand-holding here, as it felt more like a blatant crowd-pleaser than any sort of attempt to respect the direction of the story in its last 3 or 4 minutes. It would have been much better suited as a post-credits scene, rather than a fully-fledged ad-lib for what was an otherwise heart-warming conclusion to a charming love story.
Yet that is part of the reason why it is difficult to stay mad at The F Word for long at any given time. There is simply too much it gets right to spend time dwelling on its wrongs. I have expressed admiration for Dowse’s previous work on Goon, which finely balanced R-Rated comedy with genuinely affective character growth, and with The F Word, Dowse shows intricate skill that is not locked into irreverent comedy. I sincerely recommend The F Word to those who appreciate the romantic comedy that does enough to separate itself from the norms of its peers, whilst remembering just what it is that makes the genre so appealing to begin with.