I Want You Back

2022 | rated R | starring Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Gina Rodriguez, Manny Jacinto | directed by Jason Orley | 1 hr 56 mins |

After Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are separately dumped by their respective partners (Scott Eastwood and Gina Rodriguez) they randomly meet each other crying in a stairwell at work and soon hatch a plot where the other would help breakup their exes new relationships and win them back.

Powered on the terrific pair-up of Charlie Day and Jenny Slate, I Want You Back treads through familiar rom-com territory but at almost every turn from the performances to the script to the tight editing makes choices counter the usual studio rom-com and comes out better for it. It’s R-rated with a few well-placed F-bombs without being the kind of overly vulgar tonal nightmare that sinks “adult” studio films. It’s chaotic without being random nonsense, it’s big crazy set-pieces leading to big developments in the story. It’s sweet without being unbelievable or manipulative. It allows it’s leads to breathe and feel through the dialog without forcing them to improvise. You can easily picture a version of this movie directed by Judd Apatow or Paul Feig and it is just a nightmare.

The chief issue with I Want You Back is that it sets up a scenario where the two leads supposedly don’t want or need to get together but have to, because that’s what rom-coms do. More than most movies we’re supposed to project a willful suspension of disbelief that Peter and Emma somehow won’t end up destined for each other. While they don’t have particularly believable romantic chemistry, there is a grand charm seeing Charlie Day and Jenny Slate in the romantic leading roles here. It’s like watching the oddball sidekicks from other rom-coms finally getting their chance in the spotlight. Rom-Com leads are rarely allowed this much personality. They’re both very funny in this movie. I laughed out loud several times at the bizarre delivery choices that Slate and Day make.

There is a brief little bit in here where Day describes their plot – which is something like a mix between The Parent Trap and Strangers on a Train – as a sexier Cruel Intentions. When she asks how, he just replies “It’s not!” and the movie cuts away. Imagine just for a second a sloppier director and less tuned actors laboring over this joke and dragging the bit out until the bit died on the vine before our eyes. There is also a superb piece of physical comedy that’s straight out of a Buster Keaton movie where Day, looking for a hiding place in Emma’s ex’s bedroom, tries  behind the curtains, in the closet and under a bed and gets thwarted at all 3 turns. Then there is what maybe the highlight, and a case of the movie not hanging a lantern on the joke, but letting the absurdity of the situation play out: Slate being pulled to be a stand-in during a high school production of Little Shop of Horrors and delivering a heartfelt performance of “Suddenly Seymour” opposite a 12 year old boy. Even set pieces that would be random nonsense in other movies, like Slate playing prudish chicken with Rodriguez during a three-way or Day and Eastwood taking molly with a group of strangers at a club, all lead to big turns of the plot.

The film starts to drag in the third act, as it starts feeling around the increasingly complex nature of Emma and Peter’s feelings for each other and the deception they engaged in.  I Want You Back is not clear when to drop that other shoe, at one point suggesting Emma may have feelings for him way earlier than she does and vice versa. The film meanders around trying to find an ending, and doesn’t find a satisfying one. Given that the entire charade was on two people who broke up with them and went on to be fine, the movie thinks their lies are a much bigger deal than the audience will. It leads to a break-up-to-make-up and dramatic public confession that feels completely unnecessary. It also feels like a tacit admission that the movie can’t sell these two entirely in a traditional love story and shouldn’t be forcing them into one.

Point being, if Day and Slate don’t have romantic chemistry, their friendship chemistry most definitely works and that is what fuels most of the film. I laughed quite a bit at this movie. The tone is just right and its very entertaining, flying by at almost 2 hours. A standout genre movie that sits somewhere between the indie and studio rom-coms and takes the best qualities of each.

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