‘IF’ Review: John Krasinski’s Kid-Friendly Fantasy Rings Mostly Hollow

Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming star in a confused and derivative family fantasy

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Ryan Reynolds in "IF" Paramount Pictures

John Krasinski’s “IF” (it’s an acronym for “Imaginary Friend”) is a strange movie. It’s tonally discombobulated and nowhere near as enchanting as Michael Giacchino’s score seems to think it is. It’s distractingly derivative of the Cartoon Network series “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” and J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” and the 90s favorite “Drop Dead Fred,” but originality isn’t nearly as important as effective storytelling. And “IF” has neither.

Cailey Fleming (“The Walking Dead”) stars as Bea, a girl whose mother dies during the opening credits, and whose father — played by writer/director Krasinski — is in the hospital awaiting open heart surgery. Bea has to move in with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), but she gets pulled into a mystery when she sees her reclusive neighbor Calvin (Ryan Reynolds) breaking into the homes of small children in the middle of the night and talking to people nobody else can see.

Nobody else, that is, except for Bea. She befriends Calvin, and also a large furry monster named Blue (voiced by Steve Carell), and a flapper insect straight out of an old Betty Boop cartoon named Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

According to “IF,” when children outgrow their imaginary friends those friends don’t disappear. (Except there’s one time Blue says they do, and then the movie quickly forgets about it.) Instead these IFs just wander around like lonely ghosts. Calvin, who is deeply tortured and curses his fate, wants to find new children to adopt these IFs. Because apparently some kids can’t come up with imaginary friends of their own, for reasons this movie never even attempts to explain.

Having nothing else to do — except ignore her lonely grandmother and spend very little time with her father in the hospital while he prepares for dangerous surgery to fix a life-threatening condition — Bea embarks on a magical adventure with Calvin. She explores a magical home for imaginary friends and tries to connect them with kids, or failing that, their original creators. Oh yeah, and when Bea discovers that she can use her imagination to warp reality around her, she chases Calvin through the retirement home like a slasher villain, torturing him “Duck Amuck” style while he flees in horror.

“IF” is a story about a kid but it doesn’t have a kid’s perspective. Bea lost one parent and is at serious risk of losing another, and she’s avoiding all her real psychological turmoil by focusing on the needs of imaginary people. Krasinski’s script never engages with the inner conflict that Bea must be experiencing; she’s torn between reality and fiction, consciously or subconsciously disassociating from her family when she knows they need her the most. It’s a story about serious feelings but it disengages with most of them, so the escapism doesn’t feel sincere and the drama rings hollow.

Despite the plot’s protestations, the biggest dramatic heft in Krasinski’s film comes from the adults. They lead empty lives because they’re no longer connected to childlike wonder. The moments when “IF” achieves its full potential are exclusively in its scenes about older people, their regrets, and how beautiful their life becomes after they remember what they lost. And yet we spend the least amount of time with these adult characters, in favor of a young protagonist whose journey isn’t as convincing.

“IF” doesn’t find its own voice, or build a cohesive magical world, or land most of its punches. So it’s easy to get distracted by thinking of how delightful “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” was, or how emotionally devastating “A Monster Calls” was, or how strangely psychologically complicated “Drop Dead Fred” was. Krasinski’s film is a vague celebration of imagination and wonder, but it can’t imagine a world that makes sense or entertains, and that’s just not wonderful.

“IF” opens exclusively in theaters on May 17.

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