I Want You Back | ★★★ | Now streaming on Amazon Prime
It’s all fun and grift, until someone catches feels. Except: everyone already has feelings, but for their exes, who have rejected them.
I Want You Back, a new rom-com starring the perversely adorable Jenny Slate alongside the adorably perverse Charlie Day, smartly relies on the convention of the genre while pushing a deeper agenda on what this love stuff is really all about.
The film opens with Slate’s Emma ordering a second “Lovers cocktail” at brunch while her hunky sweet fitness-fanatic boyfriend, Noah (Scott Eastwood), gently breaks the news that he’s met someone else. Minutes later, we meet Peter, played by Day, who finds himself sob-singing “Happy Birthday” at the birthday party of his girlfriend’s nephew.
Well, ex-girlfriend—Anne (Gina Rodriguez), his girlfriend of six years, has just broken up with him. Later, Emma and Peter—who work in the same office building in Atlanta, Georgia—meet in a stairwell and begin bemoaning their existentially crushing heartache, which spins, as these things do, into a sloppy, liquor-fueled karaoke session.
And then they get a brilliant idea: use each other to attempt to con their exes into getting back together with them. Their plan is so crude, outrageous, and morally bankrupt that clearly it’s bound to blow up in their faces spectacularly. But that’s precisely why we tune in, to watch these weirdos flail. There’s a comedic paradox to reveling in a wound familiar to anyone who has ever been dumped.
Going into this film, I was a little worried Slate’s and Day’s performances would be on too similar a wavelength: one awkward howler might be cute, but surely two would be a symphony of pure annoyance. I Want You Back director Jason Orley, though, recognizes this, and the best moments are when Slate and Day play off the supporting cast: the delightfully aloof Manny Jacinto playing a mawkish, hubristic middle school drama teacher, Rodriguez serving up barbed effervescence as Anne, and the apple of Slate’s eye, Eastwood, as Noah, a painfully straight man obsessed with nutritional metrics and how much he can lift.
Orley is mostly known for his work with comedian Pete Davidson, directing his 2019 streaming-screen debut in Big Time Adolescence and his comedy special Alive from New York, and fans will be happy to know Davidson does have a cameo playing a character straight out of a Saturday Night Live sketch.
I Want You Back works because this is a romantic comedy and we know from the onset that Slate and Day will end up together. But what non-formulaically proves more important is what they learn about relationships, and themselves, along the way. If you are looking for one of those neat little romances where the two magnetically fly into one another’s arms at the end of Act 3, I’m happy to report you’ll be disappointed.
Here, Orley is smart to rely on the conventions of the genre while also upending audience expectations. Spoiler: the real love story isn’t between Slate and Day; it’s in how they come to love themselves again after heartbreak and learn what it means to believe in and support another person selflessly.
This yields surprisingly heartfelt results: the bond that Emma and Peter build is not just a shallow “love at first sight” romance. It’s a slow burn, and if you get through all of the film’s two-hour run time, it might warm your heart, too.
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