Review: Mediocre at Best, I Want You Back Finds Laughs with the Help of Two Charming Leads

In these modern times, it is notoriously difficult to make a quality romcom (ahem, Marry Me). Relationships begin and end with little more than a swipe these days, and in such a fast-paced scene, a full 90-minute movie about finding, losing and winning back a potential romantic partner seems downright leisurely. Since it’s so hard to do well, it’s easier to give the mediocre efforts a pass, perfectly serviceable stories with a few genuine laughs and just enough chemistry to make them believable. They can’t all be When Harry Met Sally, I suppose. But then, that gem wouldn’t be quite as special if every other entry into the genre was as magical.

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, I Want You Back is one such middling offering, a suitably entertaining little foray into the foibles of modern dating, even if it does adhere to every romcom trope in the book so closely you’ll feel like you’re in a meet-cute vice grip. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Charlie Day (“It’s Always Sunny…”) star as an unlikely duo who join forces to implement a convoluted plan to get their respective exes back, the people they both believe they belong with. If you can’t already see where this is going, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. Directed by Jason Orley (Big Time Adolescence) from a script by writing partners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (Love, Simon), I Want You Back is far from perfect; it could be said it’s far from great. But its cast is charming, the jokes are (mostly) funny, and there’s even a bit of comfort in its predictability, as it allows one to just sit back and enjoy the journey to the inevitable.

In the film’s opening scenes, both Emma (Slate) and Peter (Day) get dumped. Emma’s gym rat boyfriend, Noah (Scott Eastwood), breaks it to her that he’s met someone else and wants to end things. Peter’s school teacher girlfriend, Anne (Gina Rodriguez), feels suffocated and held back by him and wants to move on. Both are caught off guard by this news and both are heartbroken. The next day, Emma leaves her post as receptionist at an orthodontist’s office for a cry break in the stairwell; it just so happens that Peter is one flight below her, doing his own commiserating. The two quickly bond over their shared experiences, and truly, the movie could end right there. They have an easy rapport, similar senses of humor and both are newly single. As they start to spend more time together, the only problem becomes that they’re the only ones who can’t see they’re perfect for each other.

Their main distraction is their exes, and soon Emma and Peter have cooked up a way to get each of their former flames back: she’s going to seduce Anne’s new boyfriend so Anne goes happily back to Peter and he’s going to befriend Noah to talk him out of his new relationship and back into Emma’s arms. What could go wrong? Credit where credit’s due, writers Berger and Aptaker have a clever handle on the genre and select settings and scenarios for these two that keep the proceedings interesting. Peter has to go to Noah’s gym to “meet” him and strike up a friendship, resulting in more than a few funny gags around Day’s lack of athleticism. The best, hands down, is a scene that sees Slate, in full costume as Audrey from “Little Shop of Horrors,” belt out Suddenly Seymour with a middle schooler. The sequence of events that leads to this delightfully bizarre moment is a bit too much to recount here, but suffice it to say it not only works, but Slate sells it with just the right blend of comedic awareness and genuine heartbreak.

Filmmaker Orley’s best decision is to let the pros do their thing, giving Day and Slate room to riff off of each other and their cast mates for a few good laughs here and there. There are the requisite montages and knowing glances as it starts to dawn on Emma and Peter just what’s going on between them, and the film’s final act, when all is fully revealed, feels earned and believable. Noah, Anne and the other people who get caught up in this silly web all react as one would expect, horrified that they thought it would ever work. And if the film’s final scene is the most contrived thing about it (where there’s been a lot that’s been contrived), it’s still sweet in the way romcoms, even mediocre ones, get to be: completely unrealistic and yet somehow stupidly charming.

I Want You Back is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Lisa Trifone

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