I Want You Back is a pleasantly askew rom-com, acidic on the edges and reveling in the distinct comedic style of its leads.
There was a time when a mid-budget romantic comedy like I Want You Back would star the likes of Anne Hathaway and Paul Rudd, open in 3,000 theaters, and bank $100 million minimum before becoming a home-viewing staple for moms, daughters, and all manner of rom-com lovers around the globe. Perhaps Amazon’s latest streaming venture is simply cutting out the middleman, an end-product delivered straight to those viewers who crave it most, and at their convenience. While it would be easy to bemoan the supposed death of the movie-going experience given this narrative, it’s worth noting that the financial stakes associated with theatrical releases often makes studio heads wary of taking any sort of risks. Sure, I Want You Back follows the most basic of romantic comedy templates, that of two individuals desperately trying to get back with their exes and slowly realizing that they instead are falling for one another, but the mere fact that it stars Jenny Slate and Charlie Day, two appealing actors who are nevertheless not exactly known for their box office clout, proves that every cloud has a silver lining.
Slate stars as Emma, an aimless 32-year-old stuck in a dead-end job who, as the film opens, is being dumped by her hunky personal trainer boyfriend, Noah (Scott Eastwood), for lacking any sort of motivation. Meanwhile, across town the risk-averse Peter (Day) is getting dropped by his girlfriend of six-years, Anne (Gina Rodriguez), for lacking spontaneity. Emma and Peter, who work in the same building, eventually have a meet-cute in the office stairwell, both hysterically crying over their lost loves. A friendship soon blossoms over their shared heartache, and a few too many drinks inspires them to come up with a plan to win back their exes, both of whom are naturally seeing other people: Emma will seduce Anne’s new boyfriend, Logan (Manny Jacinto), a high school drama teacher mounting a production of Little Shop of Horrors, while Peter will befriend Noah and convince him of the error of his ways. But in the midst of all of this scheming, one question remains: will these two knuckleheads realize they are the ones meant to be together? I Want You Back admittedly breaks no new ground in the romance genre, but director Jason Orley and writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger don’t seem all that interested in the inevitable end point, rather choosing to engage in various pleasant digressions along the way that prove far more fruitful and entertaining than the usual stock scenarios. For example, it’s hard to begrudge a romantic comedy that goes out of its way to set up the whole Little Shop of Horrors schtick simply so that Slate can engage in an emotionally cathartic four-minute performance of “Suddenly Seymour,” a scene that offers reason enough to catch this flick. Day, meanwhile, gets to misbehave in a bromance subplot that ultimately involves high school girls, a pilled-up Pete Davidson, hot tub jumping, and Eastwood’s naked ass, so no complaints there either.
Big Time Adolescence, Orley’s debut feature, proved that the filmmaker possesses the ability to indulge in genre clichés while also tweaking them in ways that prove far more interesting than the average studio pap. That’s not to say that Orley is reinventing the wheel or anything, but he does have a keen understanding of how to deliver fun in a genre where novelty usually goes to die. But it’s also Orley and company’s penchant for coloring outside the lines that proves to be the film’s biggest hiccup when it comes to its central romance. By design, Emma and Peter are often stranded in separate storylines, reuniting for a few stray scenes here and there to discuss their vengeance-fueled progress. That makes it nearly impossible for the two characters to form much developed intimacy, making the prescribed ending ring a little hollow, regardless of the charming leads’ best efforts, as well as a final shot that cuts to black on a note of pure perfection. There are simply too many distractions littered about, regardless of their entertainment value, including Emma befriending a troubled high school student (Luke David Blumm) with multiple gay dads and two college-aged roommates (Mason Gooding and Dylan Gelula) who have loud sex and, well, that’s it. But as such efforts often go, it all comes back to the rom-com couple, and it’s an inestimable boon for the film to have it anchored by Slate and Day, two of the most likable performers working, both of whom are afforded the opportunity to show off their distinct comedic stylings to winning effect. Any excuse to be in their company for two hours is a welcome proposition, and they ably carry I Want You Back on their backs with an effortless grace that would make Mikhail Baryshnikov proud. For those couples who like their date-night hijinks just a tad askew, I Want You Back will make for a fine two-hour distraction this Valentine’s Day, while being just acidic enough to keep even the singles from crying foul. Who says romance is dead?