I Want You Back (United States, 2022)

February 10, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
I Want You Back Poster

When one considers a conventional romantic comedy, it’s the details that matter since the overall course must follow a predetermined trajectory. With When Harry Met Sally, one of the best traditional rom-coms of the past four decades, there was never any doubt that Harry and Sally would be a couple by the time the end credits rolled; the question was whether the journey to get them to that point would be worth taking. The same question can be asked about Jason Orley’s I Want You Back with a similar (albeit not as emphatic) answer. I Want You Back scratches a particular Valentine’s Day itch in that it provides a dollop of romance to go along with a few laughs. It fails to stick the landing but only loses a few points for that misstep. (The final ten minutes are muddled and the Big Romantic Gesture™ is rather feeble.)

The core premise here is that Charlie Day’s Peter and Jenny Slate’s Emma don’t know each other until they meet-not-so-cute in the stairwell at a high rise where they both work. Both have been dumped by their respective significant others: Peter by Anne (Gina Rodriguez), who had been his “plus one” for six years, and Emma by 18-month boyfriend Noah (Scott Eastwood). Anne is now with middle school drama teacher Logan (Manny Jacinto) and Noah is sleeping with Ginny (Clark Backo). But, during that fateful first meeting when Peter and Emma realize they have a similar ex-relationship problem, a friendship is born. It comes with a plan.

Both want back into their old relationships, despite having been dumped (and, at least in Peter’s case, humiliated). To facilitate this, Emma proposes seducing Logan. Since she believes Peter won’t have a chance with Ginny (because Noah is a hunk and Peter is…not one), the idea is for Peter to befriend Noah and, once having earned his trust, whisper things in his ear that will turn him away from Ginny and back to Emma. However, because the star couple of this rom-com are Peter and Emma, we know they will develop feelings for one another and the film’s success relies primarily on how compelling that relationship is. Orley and his screenwriters (Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger) don’t strike gold, but neither do they strike out. I Want You Back is a better-than-average but not stellar entry into the genre.

Perhaps the most notable thing about I Want You Back (aside from a really bizarre use of Little Shop of Horrors’ “Suddenly Seymour”) is that it’s actually funny. Most rom-coms take vague stabs at humor while focusing on the romance. Here, the balance is shifted. There’s enough chemistry between Day and Slate to get us to root for their coupling but both are comedians by trade and that serves them well. Slate gets her best scenes during an awkward-as-hell threesome and Day’s funniest moments come when he tries to find a hiding place in a bedroom that is devoid of the usual options.

To its credit, I Want You Back bucks the usual trend by not making the two exes into assholes. Both are quite likeable and I can imagine there may be some viewers who would prefer that Peter reunite with Anne than hook-up with Emma. The screenplay is at times uneven. The ending doesn’t work as well as it should, there’s a really odd subplot with Emma befriending a pugnacious middle-schooler, and Peter’s last-ditch effort to salvage his part of the bargain is half-baked at best. Plus, although the film has just enough profanity to earn an R-rating, it doesn’t take advantage of the edgier opportunities available by bypassing the PG-13. Both a proposed threesome and Peter’s drug-fueled walk on the wild side are not saltier than what one might find in a SNL skit (I mention that as a nod to Slate’s stint on the show from 2009-2010).

Slate’s Emma is likeable in a modern-day Diane Keaton way: competent but slightly frazzled at times. Day tones down some of his more exaggerated characteristics in order to make Peter relatable. Two of the three supporting actors – Rodriguez and Eastwood – mesh well with the stars. Clark Backo has a smaller role so, except for a few key scenes, she’s more often on the outside looking in. Unlike many big-screen outings for ex-SNL cast members, this one isn’t chock-full of cameos. The only one belongs to Pete Davidson, and that’s likely because of his close ties to the director.

In the 2020s, the mature romantic comedy is an endangered species with most rom-coms featuring protagonists in their teens and 20s. Day is in his mid-40s and Slate is seven years younger. They are therefore atypical screen lovers – less star-crossed and more pragmatic; it makes their conversations richer. I Want You Back is headed for Amazon’s Prime Video in time for Valentine’s Day and it’s worth at least a small bouquet of flowers to highlight the things it gets right.

I Want You Back (United States, 2022)

Director: Jason Orley
Cast: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Gina Rodriguez, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo
Screenplay: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger
Cinematography: Brian Burgoyne
Music: Siddhartha Khosla
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios/Prime Video
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2022-02-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Romance/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1