“If Only” chronicles a day in the life of Samantha (Jennifer Love Hewitt), a precocious American (aren’t they all?) studying music in London, and her boyfriend Ian (Paul Nicholls), a somewhat stuffy (aren’t they all?) financial something-or-rather. I was never really clear what it was that Ian did, not that it matters much. As the day begins, Ian is nonchalantly chalking up negative points by forgetting important dates and just generally acting like a tool toward his sympathetic girlfriend, who seems to want nothing from him except to love him, and be loved in return. At the end of the night, everything comes to a head, as the two abruptly calls it off and Samantha promptly enters a cab that gets broadsided, killing her. It’s only then that Ian realizes what he had, but of course it’s too late to make amends. Luckily for the grieving boyfriend, when he wakes up the next morning, Samantha is alive again. Even stranger, he’s reliving that fateful day, and he’s the only one who remembers it!
All of this takes place within the first 30 minutes, setting the stage for the film’s final hour, which follows Ian as he battles confusion, followed by realization, becomes lost in desperation, and finally discovers acceptance of what’s happened, and will happen. Armed with the knowledge of the day’s events, Ian resolves to save Samantha’s life using his knowledge of the day’s upcoming events. But fate will not be denied, and for every negative event Ian averts, a similar negative event takes its place later on in the day. How do you fight destiny? The answer seems to lie with a mysterious taxi driver (Tom Wilkinson, soon to be seen in the upcoming “Batman Begins”), whose only advise to Ian is to “appreciate” Samantha.
Aside from the fact that we’ve already seen star Jennifer Love Hewitt get broadsided by a car and die on the operating table, “If Only” is actually a rather lively little gem. Hewitt is in trademark happy-go-lucky form, but the real heavy lifting is done by Paul Nicholls, whose character is practically unreadable in the beginning. Which serves our muddled reaction to the character, as we are experiencing Ian through Samantha’s eyes — she simply doesn’t understand him at all even after all these years, and we feel the same way after only knowing him for only half an hour. For much of the film, Paul Nicholls owns the movie, appearing in almost every scene. As the hour of Samantha’s impending death looms, Nicholls wholly convinces as a man trying desperately to cheat fate.
One needn’t be pre-disposed to like “Jennifer Love Hewitt movies” to enjoy “If Only”. If you have a pulse, the film should entertain you. The script by Christina Welsh struggles a bit in the beginning, especially by indulging in some cheesy “I’m American, you’re British, and we’re different because of this” moments. This is made sillier because Hewitt’s Samantha has been living in London for 3 years, and it seems not quite believable that she still stumbles over British phrases, and in general is still behaving like a day-old tourist. Luckily Hewitt and Nicholls have chemistry, especially in the film’s second half, and this is enough to save the film whenever the script falters.
“If Only” does follow a somewhat predictable course, and the three main characters (Samantha, Ian, and Lucy Davenport as Samantha’s best friend) are not exactly unique creations in the world of cinema. But to give Welsh and director Gil Junger credit, the film doesn’t opt for the easy way out, and the denouement is stronger, with a touch of grit, for their decision. It’s also to producer Hewitt’s credit that she allows Paul Nicholls to dominant the movie. Without a doubt, the movie will be sold as a “Jennifer Love Hewitt movie”, even if the film’s real strength, and on whose shoulders the movie rests, is Nicholls. In fact, the only real “star moment” that Hewitt allows herself to indulge in shows up toward the end, when Hewitt’s character sings for the first time. A ploy to sell more records or a natural compliment to the character she’s playing? You decide.
Jennifer Love Hewitt and Paul Nicholls are very charming and sincere romantic leads, and the story is entertaining and suspenseful, with touches of heartfelt melodrama to make the ladies grab for their hankies. The film stumbles a bit in the beginning, but more than makes up for it with an exciting and romantic second half. The fantastical premise is not up for debate, much like the South Korean movie “Some” (which used the same “living the same day over” conceit), which is . Those looking for a slightly ambitious romantic film will find “If Only” more than suitable.