Romantic comedies are one of the more ubiquitous genres coming out of Hollywood, and while it’s been some time since we got a great one there are more than a few perfectly fun ones worth your time. The latest entry to fit the bill pairs its romantic aspirations with some big laughs that come as much from the cast as they do the script. It runs a bit too long, but I Want You Back is a rom-com worth opening your heart and funny bone to.
Peter (Charlie Day) and Anne (Gina Rodriguez) have been together for a few years, and he’s floored when she breaks up with him because she thinks he’s holding her back from greatness. Emma (Jenny Slate) and Noah (Scott Eastwood) haven’t been a couple for quite as long, but she’s still surprised when he breaks up with her because she’s grown stagnant in her life. Co-workers in the same office building, Peter and Emma meet as strangers crying in the shared stairwell and quickly become friends — friends with a plan to help each other win back their respective ex. Emma will seduce Anne’s new boyfriend (Manny Jacinto) to make her return to Peter, and Peter will befriend Noah in order to engineer a breakup with his new girlfriend (Clark Backo).
It’s all very complicated. Except it isn’t really… because this is a rom-com.
I Want You Back is director Jason Orley‘s follow-up to 2019’s Big Time Adolescence, and it’s the more entertaining time of the two films as its aspirations are less serious and its talents are more comedically seasoned. Similarly, writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (Love, Simon, 2018; Love, Victor, 2020) continue their interest in “love” stories with a film that focuses arguably more on the laughs this time around with some very funny results. It won’t land on a list of the genre’s best, but it succeeds in its modest goals while embracing its R-rating.
To be clear, I Want You Back isn’t a hard-R along the lines of a Judd Apatow production, but the characters aren’t restrained from talking the way adults talk leading to some fun back and forths about sexual shenanigans. It’s instead fairly sweet in its view of romance, in ways Apatow films almost never are, and the result is a rom-com with multiple players who all feel a bit weightier than mere stock characters. None of the exes or new partners are portrayed as the “bad” guy or gal, and it’s instead a pretty honest acknowledgement that sometimes people can outgrow each other. We know Peter and Emma will end up together — not a spoiler, because, it’s a rom-com — but the journey finds real sweetness and a little bit of romance along the way.
Happily, it also brings plenty of laughs. Some come from side characters including Eastwood — his belief that “get back on the horse” is actually “get back on the whores” is good stuff — and a Pete Davidson cameo, but the bulk are due to the comedic mastery exhibited by Day and Slate. They’re both exceedingly funny performers capable of turning even moderately amusing dialogue into fodder for big laughs. The script offers plenty of opportunities for the pair to shine, but it’s their interactions, reactions, and expressions that bring the goods throughout. The pair call themselves “Sadness Sisters,” and Slate’s rendition of “Suddenly Seymour” during a grade-school production of Little Shop of Horrors (it’s a long story) touches the heart even as it also leaves you smiling.
At just under two hours, though, I Want You Back is most definitely too long for a mid-level rom-com. There are enough laughs to keep viewers invested, but the story’s setup can’t quite carry the duration leaving room beats and sequences that feel a bit unnecessary. That said, more time with the supporting characters never exactly feels wasted as the performers are all doing good, engaging work.
It all feels like a silly riff on the likes of Strangers on a Train (1951) and Cruel Intentions (1999) — the latter of which the characters themselves mention — but the feel of I Want You Back rings closer to 2010’s severely under-appreciated Going the Distance. The stories are obviously different, but both films are given a big lift by their respective leads who strike a terrific balance between chemistry, personality, senses of humor, and heart. We like hanging out with these people, and we want things to work out for them, and that kind of charisma goes a long way towards delivering a fun atmosphere and film.
I Want You Back is one of two rom-coms opening this weekend, and it’s the better choice for audiences craving laughs and love at home. (And that’s not just because the other movie is only in theaters.)
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