Film Review – I Want You Back
I Want You Back
Misery loves company, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. That is the predicament our two central characters face in I Want You Back (2022). Directed by Jason Orley (cowritten by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger) this is a throwback romantic comedy that isn’t afraid to embrace its tropes. Twenty or thirty years ago, this would have been a prime vehicle for the likes of Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, or Hugh Grant. In recent times, however, the genre has taken a back seat to big budget blockbusters. Advertising campaigns have been calibrated toward large scale spectacles as opposed to stories of people traversing the ups and downs of romance.
Which is too bad because this is a solid version of that premise. It’s refreshing to see a “rom-com” that isn’t afraid to be exactly that. The narrative is completely earnest in its approach – void of the cynicism that has plagued the genre in the last few decades. Tongue-in-cheek satires like They Came Together (2014) have exposed the blueprint for these films. And yet, it’s nice to see a production celebrate this story instead of making fun of it. These characters engage in a “Meet Cute,” form a bond, break apart – the whole “Will they/Won’t they?” scenario. There are no surprises here – we have a pretty good idea of where everything will end up. But there is just enough heart to make this worth a watch this Valentine’s Day weekend.
Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are two thirty-somethings who are both stuck in a rut. Peter works a job he hates and Emma has no clue what she wants to do with her life. Coincidentally, both Peter and Emma are dumped by their lovers at nearly the same time. Peter’s ex, Anne (Gina Rodriguez), leaves him for hunky drama teacher Logan (Manny Jacinto). Emma’s ex, Noah (Scott Eastwood), is a fitness trainer that has fallen for Ginny (Clark Backo) who works at a bakery. Through a twist of fate, Peter and Emma work in the same building, meeting each other while sobbing in the stairwell. Needless to say, the two bond through their mutual depression.
Not much more needs to be said about what happens next, right? The writing and direction fall right into the routine, following Peter and Emma as they develop their “friendship.” Day and Slate have very good on-screen chemistry. They both exude an angsty/ nervous quality – as if they both have something on their minds but aren’t exactly sure how to articulate it. That trait works well when, after a night of drunken bonding, the two devise a plan to win back their exes. Emma will try to seduce Logan as a means for Anne to go back to Peter. In return, Peter will develop a bromance with Noah in hopes of steering him back to Emma. This is straight out of the screwball comedy notebook, with our two protagonists bumbling their way through their scheme.
Visually, the film’s style is efficient but unremarkable. Conversations are captured in standard medium close up, alternating back and forth between characters with little variation. This is not necessarily a detriment, as rom coms are more about the interactions of the cast. The bigger issue is in the structure of the narrative. At almost a full two hours in length, the film pads its runtime, especially in the latter half. Too much energy is used to arrange all the pieces in place for the big emotional payoff. Just when we think things are winding down, the story extends for another 15-20 minutes to tie up all the loose ends. Instead of us leaning forward anticipating what happens next, we lean back as the film overstays its welcome.
But even with that said, it was fun watching Charlie Day and Jenny Slate bounce punchlines off one another. The energy picks up whenever the two share a scene. When Peter and Emma drop their guard and see each other fully is when the emotional stakes are at their highest. There are instances when their compassion for one another is quite touching. Whenever the focus went back to their lost loves is when we shift back into autopilot. Part of what made When Harry Met Sally… (1989) such a touchstone of the genre was in seeing two funny people share their ideas and opinions freely. I Want You Back has some of that, but it too often reverts back to the shenanigans. Drug infused parties, threesomes, and middle school renditions of Little Shop of Horrors (1986) derail the flow. It’s as though the production was hesitant to let Peter and Emma interact like real, flesh and blood people.
Those who are not fans of romantic comedies will find nothing of value in I Want You Back. But for those that have an inkling for a good old fashioned love story, they may be rewarded. This offers a handful of laughs, and the actors turn in solid performances. This doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel and that’s totally ok.