John Krasinski’s IF bends over backwards trying to ingratiate itself to its viewers. It’s there in every bit of mugging by the director, who also acts in the film as the father of the main character. It’s there in every plaintive plinking of piano keys and lonesome violin of Michael Giacchino’s relentless score. It’s there in every hopeful look on the fuzzy face of one of the imaginary friends this main character can see, who give the film its titular acronym.


But if you were one of those people who felt annoyed by Bing-Bong in Inside Out, imagine a whole movie full of Bing-Bongs, putting on a sweaty show in order to prove just how loveable they can be – and delivering the opposite verdict instead. At least Bing-Bong had the impeccable vocal work of Richard Kind to prop it up, consciously hearkening back to an earlier era of stage comedy that involved a metaphorical “is it hot in here?” adjustment of the tie. Here, our primary imaginary friend is a giant furry creature called Blue – he’s actually purple, ha ha – and he’s voiced by Steve Carell, calling on heretofore untapped reserves of shameless and unconvincing cuteness. If only IF weren’t so eager to please as its main characters, it might find some fruit in its central idea.

Which, granted, was already done in the aforementioned Pixar movie. Bing-Bong’s existential crisis was that if Riley forgot him, he would literally cease to be. It’s a little less clear what will happen to the imaginary friends in this film, only that if the kid who dreamt them up can no longer remember them, they need to be matched up with a new kid – or else. (Blue has a panic attack in which he’s worried he’ll start disappearing, a likely knowing wink at Inside Out – which Giacchino also scored.)

Twelve-year-old Bea (Cailey Fleming) can see not only Blue, but also dozens of other discarded IFs, who live out their days in a retirement home in Coney Island. Those who have given up trying to make a new match have not disappeared, as Blue feared, but they’d all, deep down, still like to find a kid who believes in them. So she involuntarily takes up the task of trying to make these matches, alongside another human who can see them, Calvin (Ryan Reynolds). Neither of them is particularly enthusiastic about the job, but those still in search of a match – such as an antique Betty Boop style IF, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge – have an annoying habit of never leaving them alone.

In the world that everyone else can see, Bea is facing a far more immediate crisis, which is that her father (Krasinski) is about to have heart surgery. She already lost her mum to cancer when she was younger, and it may be that these IFs, with all their pent-up love and support, will enable her to use childish things to become more of an adult.


Imaginary friends are certainly having a moment. We are only two months removed from Jason Blum’s horror take on this topic, Imaginary, which openly name-checked Bing-Bong. (And Inside Out 2 is less than a month off, though there will probably be no Bing-Bong as Kind’s name does not appear on IMDB.) This and the Blum-produced film have a surprising amount in common, even being in vastly different genres, but unfortunately, their greatest similarity is the extent to which they miss the mark. IF is closer to getting there, but the film is so shmaltzy that it tries to guilt you into loving it. Even with Giacchino on board, this movie doesn’t have a hope of wetting your tear ducts like Inside Out did.

Krasinski got a lot of his big name friends to contribute a voice to one of these IFs, from George Clooney to Maya Rudolph to Matt Damon to Bradley Cooper to his wife, Emily Blunt. If you were a fan of the recently departed Louis Gossett Jr., you’ll get to hear his first posthumous role as a 93-year-old imaginary bear, whose first kid likely grew up in the Great Depression. But only Gossett really plays genuinely on our sympathies here, with Waller-Bridge coming close in one scene but remaining at sort of a remove, and Carell just stuck on annoying throughout. Among the on-screen actors, Reynolds seems like he’d rather be anywhere else.


Krasinski’s script goes off in a couple directions at once, trying to follow the giddy world of a variety of fairly creative imaginary friends. In doing so, it neglects the dramatic stakes of the father’s heart surgery for long periods of time, where Bea seems to forget that this is even happening and devotes all her time and mental energy to making matches for the IFs. It’s as though she’s as aware as we are that this is not the sort of film that’s going to take both parents from its main character. When the action returns to that plot and tries to wring an emotional payoff, it feels empty.

Visually, the film is of varying quality. The CG mostly looks fine, and combines with practical effects at times to give the IFs better physicality within the space. The lighting and camerawork are both a bit dingy, though, which tends to undercut our sense of being transported away to a magical world that exists just beyond our sensory perception.


Krasinski memorably broke out as a director with A Quiet Place in 2018 and its sequel in 2020, both of which showcased some real technical merits and a sense of how to create pacing and tension. Obviously he’s not doing the same sorts of things in IF, and it shows. This is a movie made by a man with an eight-year-old child and a ten-year-old child, who wanted to make something his kids could watch rather than a movie involving aliens who tear you to shreds if you make a sound. Would that those aliens would come and rid us of some of these imaginary friends, making for a much quieter place indeed.


IF is currently playing in cinemas.

4 / 10