MOVIES

These Imaginary Friends Should Have Stayed In John Krasinski’s Head

Twelve-year-old Bea (Cailey Fleming) is living with her grandmother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), following the death of her mother and amidst her prankster father’s (John Krasinski) ongoing treatment for a nonspecific life-threatening illness. One day, just outside the New York brownstone where she lives, she spots a strange creature running into her building and into an abandoned apartment directly above hers. Not long after, she discovers that this room is occupied by Cal (Ryan Reynolds), who shares the same gift as her: they can both see the IFs — the SEO-unfriendly term for imaginary friends the movie is desperate to make happen — who have been abandoned by the children who have grown out of them. With all of these cuddly creations (led by Steve Carell’s deeply annoying Blue) burdening them both, the pair teams up in the hope of matching the imaginary friends with new owners, which is easier said than done.

The plethora of imaginary friends live undetected next to Luna Park in Coney Island, the most imaginatively realized set within a film that largely takes place within dull or sterile interiors — several identical apartment buildings and hospital wards take up most of the screen time — which even the least discerning child will likely recognize as being shot on sound stages. If the limited nature of the locations within the story aren’t testament enough to the shortcomings of Krasinski’s imagination, then the sequence in which he finally lets his young protagonist’s mind run free and completely transform the home for IFs, Elliot Page in “Inception”-style, articulates it most clearly. Yassifying the colder but significantly more striking imagery from Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, corridors fold into themselves and walls collapse outward as the home’s interiors give way to swimming pools, beaches, and concert stages.

Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński, there is occasionally striking imagery, such as Reynolds climbing out of a watercolor painting, but nothing that feels like it could have come from a young, hyperactive imagination. This sequence builds, bizarrely, towards Reynolds getting deep-faked into the music video for Tina Turner’s 1984 hit “Better Be Good To Me” as a member of her backing band, a curious decision when framed as the product of a young child’s mind. Does Krasinski not know the kids are listening to Olivia Rodrigo these days? This might sound like I’m clutching at straws, but there’s no foreshadowing to this specific needle drop, nor are there any events within the narrative that mirror the lyrics in any way. It feels like the product of a director thinking more about what songs he’d like to hear in a movie than an accurate reflection of something his young protagonist would have as the soundtrack to her craziest fantasies.

Throughout, I kept thinking back to a criticism that was frequently levied at “Inception” when it premiered: that the dreams presented within weren’t surreal enough, showing a lack of imagination on Nolan’s behalf. I understand that line of thinking, but find it fairly easy to disagree with because “Inception” is, fundamentally, a heist movie — it has to conform to a more straightforward narrative logic in order for its beats to thrill as intended. “IF” doesn’t have similar constraints placed upon itself, and it takes great pains to reference the impracticalities of various imaginary friends (including invisible ones, or ones whose size causes untold destruction around them) in ways that could lead to joyous controlled chaos if utilized properly.

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