If Review: A Whimsical, Messy Therapy Session

Some of the best movies for kids have a powerful emotional core that pulls at your heartstrings. Whether it’s reconciling grief, legacy, and coming-of-age in “The Lion King” (not the “live-action” disappointment) or the tale of an outcast talking pig in “Babe” who learns that being true to yourself is all the world needs you to be, kids movies have the power to teach everyone something about life, no matter how old they are. Writer and director John Krasinski has attempted to step into this arena with “IF,” hitting theaters this weekend, and it’s quite the departure from his sci-fi horror hit “A Quiet Place,” though it fits more in line with his sophomore directorial effort, the family dramedy “The Hollars.”

“IF” follows 12-year old Bea (Cailey Fleming), a girl who doesn’t really consider herself a kid anymore. Having dealt with some traumatic pain due to the passing of her mother, she’s become resistant to enjoying the fruits of childhood. Her father (Krasinski) tries to make her smile at every turn, succeeding somewhat by cracking jokes and spouting schmaltzy sentimentalities as he heads into the hospital for surgery to fix a broken heart (more than a little on the nose, right?). But Bea puts on a mostly serious front as she prepares for a stay with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw). When presented with the potential to create some more artwork for her grandmother to collect, Bea stresses that she’s 12 now, and she doesn’t do that kinda stuff anymore.

Surely, there’s a lesson to be learned here, and the path to learning it lies in Bea’s sudden ability to see imaginary friends, or IFs, as they refer to themselves. After an encounter with Blossom (voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge), an IF who looks like a vintage cartoon character reminiscent of Felix the Cat in a tutu, Bea meets Calvin (Ryan Reynolds), a human living on the top floor of her grandmother’s building who is simultaneously mysterious, exasperated, and hesitant to explain the world of IFs to Bea. Even as she becomes more curious and willing to help solve what appears to be Calvin’s big problem, he always seems to be perturbed. Calvin’s big problem is that he seems to be the only other human who can see these IFs, and his current focus is Blue, a puffy, purple, furry monster (voiced adorably by Steve Carell) who is desperate to connect with a new kid after his original kid Jeremy forgot about him. This leads to Bea meeting an entire retirement home worth of imaginary friends who have been displaced after their kids grew up and left them behind. So she vows to help them find new kids.

If this were all that “IF” had to offer for the story, it would make for a solid, delightful movie utilizing an amusing array of unique and silly imaginary friends, including a wonderfully giddy unicorn (Emily Blunt), an emotional glob of green slime (Keegan-Michael Key), a Shakespearean sheet ghost (Matthew Rhys), a superhero dog (Sam Rockwell), or an amorphous black shape with a pair of eyes peeking out of a trenchcoat and fedora like some kind of cartoon detective (Christopher Meloni). Those are just some of the IFs, while others allow for star-studded cameos from the likes of Maya Rudolph, Bradley Cooper, Amy Schumer, Jon Stewart, Richard Jenkins, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Awkwafina, Blake Lively, and even the late Louis Gossett Jr. as a warm, thoughtful teddy bear wearing slacks, a polo, and a hat.

As Bea is introduced to this assembly of imaginary friends, we get a dazzling “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” VFX display of IFs as she lets her own imagination run a little wild, making the IF retirement home feel less like a depressing hospital and more like a funhouse. While meeting the various IFs is fairly entertaining, even as many of the big stars don’t really get standout moments worthy of their time, the more disappointing issue is that the movie isn’t consistently or frequently as funny as the marketing would have you believe. Even the reliable Ryan Reynolds doesn’t bring any major laughs outside of the audition-esque line-up of IFs. A repeated pratfall over an invisible IF named Keith gets tired quickly, and Reynolds’ character is more exhausted at every turn rather than getting an opportunity to be hilarious. In fact, most of the funniest parts are in the trailer.

What’s not in the trailer is the much more serious side of the story, which finds Bea coming to terms with her own grief. Even Bea’s attempts to help imaginary friends reconnect with their kids yields more somber results than you might anticipate, at least at first. This is the movie’s biggest shortcoming, as Krasinski has a hard time balancing the lighter, sillier side of entering the world of IFs with the emotional core that starts to dominate the movie, making it feel less like a fun family movie and more like a joyless therapy session. As the story unfolds, there are a handful of mysterious circumstances and uncertainties that will either have you easily predicting a key development from the film’s third act or merely wondering just where all of this is heading, especially when Bea’s hopes of helping all these imaginary friends start to feel hopeless, making the most engaging part of the story run out of steam. Not even Steve Carell’s toothy monster with endless exuberance can keep sadness from creeping in.

On the positive side, Cailey Fleming makes for a compelling young lead with a touching performance. Plus, composer Michael Giacchino delivers a spellbinding score that feels like it’s from a much more beguiling movie. And cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (a frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg) does a superb job giving the entire movie a grounded glow that allows the unbelievable IFs to fit into the real world without feeling out of place, something that the visual effects artists of the film deserve plenty of praise for too.

But with a blend of the heart-rending kid-centric drama of the tearjerker “A Monster Calls,” the fantastical, comedic vibes of “Ghost Town,” and the less edgy animated ensemble of IFs that may remind one of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” writer and director John Krasinski has a hard time creating a cohesive tone that lets the entire movie shine like one of Spielberg’s evocative family tales.

In the end, all of these pieces cannot come together into a supremely satisfying movie, and it feels like John Krasinski is working through reconciling feelings about his own kids growing up rather than giving audiences more to latch onto. Despite pushing an emotionally resonant story, “IF” isn’t able to deliver enough depth for Bea or the imaginary friends to really allow for a meaningful connection to either one. If we were able to spend more time with Bea and her family before this fantastical journey, we might be pulling for her more emphatically. If the world of IFs were introduced and fleshed out with a little more clarity and the same size heart that is given to Bea’s arc, we might have fallen more in love with the kooky characters and want to see them succeed, whatever that actually means. (Despite the drive of reconnecting with their old kid or a new kid, the movie isn’t really clear about the results here.)

Ultimately, both stories feel like their resolution only arrives because the movie has to end, not because either one has earned their cathartic closure. Instead, you may be left imagining how a better movie might have handled such a wonderful concept. Or you could just seek out the animated series “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” which also stars an imaginary friend named Bloo, and end up feeling more satisfied.

“IF” is a whimsical attempt at tackling childhood grief and the magic of imaginary friends, but it stumbles in balancing its emotional weight with its lighter, comedic elements. John Krasinski’s heart is in the right place, but the film falls short of delivering a cohesive, satisfying experience. Despite its flaws, the film’s performances, score, and visual effects offer enough charm to make it worth a watch for families looking for a heartfelt, albeit messy, adventure. For a more consistent and satisfying exploration of similar themes, viewers might find more joy in “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.”

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