Netflix's new show What/If starts with a blunt suggestion made by Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger), portrayed as a ruthless venture capitalist. She will invest 80 million dollars to save Lisa Donovan’s (Jane Levy) medical start-up from bankruptcy under one condition: a night alone with her young husband, Sean Donovan (Blake Jenner), no questions asked. If it feels like you have seen it before, it is because you probably have. The show’s premise is so openly a gender flip of the 1993 film Indecent Proposal, starring Demi Moore and Robert Redford, that Lisa's response involves a reference to "a bad '90s movie."
But it is the 21st century, and the questionable ethics and morals of Anne Montgomery go well beyond those of the billionaire John Gage, played by Robert Redford. She is an unapologetically ambitious financier who openly argues that, to be successful, one must free himself or herself from “lesser people’s moral agendas.”
The night alone with Sean is just the beginning of Anne’s twisted plot. As she moves on with her plan, the viewer wonders if her obsession is with the handsome, former baseball player Sean or with his brilliant wife, who has dedicated her career to finding a more efficient way to deliver treatment to cancer patients - a medical revolution that would arrive too late to save the life of Lisa’s sister, who died in childhood, but that could give her loss a meaning.
Anne Montgomery proves that female characters don’t need to be always heroic or inspiring to be great. They can be as calculating, power-hungry, and unscrupulous as the worse - or best - male villains. Although this looks to me like a step in the right direction, we know that we still have a long way to go when we note that female villains almost invariably need to be “explained” by some kind of trauma.
In Anne Montgomery’s case, it is not enough that she had a childhood defined by violence and neglect. She needs a second, even more obvious experience (I will stop here to avoid spoilers) to justify her evil genius. And, in case you still didn’t understand it, the show overstates its points by having Anne's sidekick Foster tell her that “the worse kind of victim is the one that chooses to create another.”
To be fair, it is not only in explaining Anne that What/If goes overboard. The show has way too many parallels, competing subplots, and an overwhelming amount of twists and turns. (There are only so many revelations that can be packed into ten episodes before it gets too much...)
But if you are still looking for a reason to watch the show, which - I admit - can easily become a guilty pleasure, I have one: Renée Zellweger. Anne Montgomery is clearly not her typical kind of role. And yet, Zellweger has found the right mix of cynicism, strength and just enough fragility to make the noir-style femme fatale Anne almost believable and, why not, entertaining.
- Lalu Farias