John Krasinski Can Direct Whatever He Wants, I Guess

IF is John Krasinski doing Pixar. If those words make you excited, you’ll enjoy the film. If they don’t, you probably won’t.

Cailey Fleming and Ryan Reynolds in a still from John Krasinski's IF. (Paramount Pictures / Youtube)

“Why is John Krasinski directing a live-action version of a Pixar film?” I wondered when I first saw a preview for IF, a title that represents an acronym for “Imaginary Friend.”

IF is about a twelve-year-old girl named Bea (Cailey Fleming) who’s suddenly able to see these adorable, invisible creatures wandering around New York City, separated from their children who’ve grown up and forgotten them. She meets an irascible neighbor named Cal (Ryan Reynolds), who can also see IFs; together they set out to reunite adults with their long-lost IFs.

So you see what I mean about the Pixar effect. Pixar’s Soul gave us adorable spirit characters separated from their humans after death, and the one soul trying to reunite with his person so he could live a full life. The overarching narrative of Pixar’s Toy Story films is the heartbreak among adorable toys when their children grow up and forget about them. Pixar’s Inside Out characterizes the separate adorable emotions inside of one girl during a not-so-happy period in her life. And Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. showed us what fantastical imaginary world creatures get assigned to specific children to hide under their beds and scare them at night, and what happens when one monster doesn’t want to scare his assigned little girl anymore.

Monsters Inc. clearly loomed large in the creation of IF, and Krasinski actually did voice acting for the sequel, Monsters University. Among IF’s CGI creations, one of the main characters, Blue (voiced by Steve Carell), a huge and shaggy but also sweet and goofy purple “monster,” is so cute he could’ve stepped right out of the Monsters, Inc. cast of characters. 

When I was a child, I really liked monsters. But I liked the ones that actually looked and acted like monsters — not big, adorably fuzzy stuffed animal toys, as in Monsters, Inc. Witches, ghosts, vampires, and zombies spoke to my depths. I was more of an Addams Family type of kid.

But I guess most children, and their parents, like cuteness and tear jerking in heavy doses, and so IF hit number one at the box office its opening week.

It appears Krasinski has done it again. He’s gone from playing the wry prankster Jim in the long-running TV comedy, The Office, to writing, directing, producing, and starring in a whole hodgepodge of stuff, to action-hero star status in macho, jingoistic crap like 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and Jack Ryan, to being half of an established Hollywood power couple with actor-producer wife Emily Blunt, who starred in his successful horror franchise, A Quiet Place. And now this.

Krasinski makes the Time magazine list of the hundred most influential people in the world. Who’da thunk Jim had it in him?

Anyway, back to IF. The backstory to Bea’s sudden ability to see IFs is the anxiety she’s experiencing as her hospitalized father (played by Krasinski) undergoes heart surgery. Having already lost her mother to cancer some years earlier, she now fears she’s about to become an orphan.

It seems it’s not potentially weepy enough, the film’s main plot about reuniting adults with their IFs, which involves many sniffly scenes showing them being restored to their sense of childlike wonder. On top of that, there’s a child with a dead mother and a maybe-dying father, plus a sweet, eccentric grandma (Fiona Shaw) trying charmingly hard to step into the parent substitute role. And on top of all that, there’s a music score by Michael Giacchino that’s so treacly, so heavy-handedly poignant, it’s trying to tear your heart out in every scene, overloaded as they all are with sobbing violins and childishly plunking piano keys.

But obviously, this kind of film isn’t made for me. John Krasinski is modeling the kind of people this film is made for in interviews, when he makes clear he’s the ultimate straight arrow: an old-fashioned, essentially conservative white guy who worships the idea of the family and supports the troops and admires CIA agents and speaks at Joe Biden’s inaugural celebration and does charity work with Boys & Girls Clubs of America. He claims that there’s a through line connecting his very different-seeming directorial efforts, the Quiet Place films, with IF. “I love the idea of them being companion pieces,” Krasinski says. “They’re both about love and family.”

IF was a classic inspired-by-my-children Hollywood project that’s fodder for so many celebrity interviews. IF features the imaginary friends of Krasinski’s children with Emily Blunt, Hazel (10) and Violet (7). They are Violet’s pink alligator and Hazel’s marshmallow that lights on fire. It seems that, as Krasinksi tells it, “Hazel is a very empathetic person. We were making s’mores one day and her marshmallow caught on fire, and she was emotionally destroyed.”

And as Pixar has demonstrated, when the behind-the-scenes creators’ kids are the source of inspiration for films, the cuteness factor is off the charts and profits are astronomical.

Still, IF has high production values, and the lead actors do all they can with the material at hand. Cailey Fleming as Bea seems talented, has a sweet face and pointy chin that’s charming to look at, and seems to bring out an irritable but kindly uncle quality in Ryan Reynolds as Cal. Fiona Shaw has a moving scene in which her grandmother character recalls her childhood ambition to be a ballerina and dances out the routine from her old school recital, with her forgotten IF, Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), dancing it behind her.

And the movie also offers the amusement of trying to guess which famous actor is voicing which IF. They include Awkwafina, Emily Blunt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer, Sam Rockwell, Blake Lively, Richard Jenkins, Keegan-Michael Key, and in his last performance, the late Louis Gossett Jr. The film is dedicated to him, and he plays a wise old Teddy Bear who runs the retirement home for IFs and philosophizes about the power of memory.

I wish the formidable Gossett had had a less sentimental, more meaty live-action role to go out on. But again, that’s just me.