‘IF’ Review: Invisible Friends, but Real Celebrity Cameos

Published: May 16, 2024

The big “IF” — as in “imaginary friend” — in John Krasinski’s treacly kids dramedy is a grizzly-sized purple goon who goes by the name Blue. The boy who conjured him was colorblind, he explains. Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) is one of dozens of dreamed-up creatures in Brooklyn who long for their now-grown BFFs to remember they exist.

At the Memory Lane Retirement Community underneath Coney Island, there’s also a pink alligator (Maya Rudolph), a superhero dog (Sam Rockwell), a worn teddy (Louis Gossett Jr.), a retro cartoon butterfly (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a robot (Jon Stewart), an astronaut (George Clooney), a glass of ice water (Bradley Cooper), a gummy bear (Amy Schumer), a unicorn (Emily Blunt), a flower (Matt Damon), a cat in an octopus costume (Blake Lively), a ghost (Matthew Rhys), a soap bubble (Awkwafina), some green slime (Keegan-Michael Key), and an invisible blob who the credits claim is none other than Brad Pitt.

What’s more impressive: Krasinski’s imagination or the very real friends in his Rolodex?

Most of these characters merely stroll through the frame to say hello, or whine to each other in group therapy. Yet these celebrity cameos take up about as much space as the plot, a gentle, slim story about an unflappable 12-year-old girl named Bea (Cailey Fleming) who helps a crank named Cal (Ryan Reynolds) play matchmaker for the lonely IFs.

If — and this is a rhetorical if — you’re still traumatized by the last shot of Bing Bong, the forgotten imaginary friend in Pixar’s “Inside Out,” breathe easy. There’s no existential threat (or narrative tension) about what might happen if the goofy gang remains consigned to oblivion. Palling about with kids again just sounds nice.

Bea, a solemn preteen with stick-straight hair, is the only child able to see all of the IFs, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that she also seems like the oldest little girl in the world; Reynolds, her foil, is regularly cast as the world’s most immature man, although here he’s been dialed down to a benevolent grouch. With her mother dead, her father (Krasinski) in the hospital, and her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) distracted watching Jimmy Stewart’s “Harvey” on TV, Bea is free to roam the streets of New York — which, to the fellow kids in the audience, might be as extraordinary as all of the shots of her strolling slowly through bedazzled fantasies. (The standout, odd as it sounds, is a musical number set to Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good to Me,” that’s wholly divorced from its erotic context.)

Any child over 5 will predict the Keyser Söze twist in Bea and Cal’s relationship. But this is a film that spells out its intentions for an audience still learning its ABCs, a film where Michael Giacchino’s misty violins never stop insisting how to feel, where Krasinski’s goofy dad literally wears a heart on his chest.

Krasinski has the worthy goal of making a children’s movie with an air of prestige — like his characters, he’s striving to be remembered long past opening weekend — and so the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski obligingly fills the screen with handsome images of spiral staircases and leather-bound books. Still, only two scenes accomplish the transcendence Krasinski is after, and both involve the simplest of all special effects: a shot of an adult human being that asks us to use our own imaginations to see the child inside.

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.

Source website: www.nytimes.com