Charlie Day and Jenny Slate serve two scoops of vanilla ice cream in I Want You Back. This perfectly safe, reasonably enjoyable, and totally forgettable rom-com is a big lick of turn-your-brain-off escapism. Day and Slate are likable leads as Peter and Emma, two stuck-in-a-rut thirtysomethings who get dumped unexpectedly. Their exes, Anne (Gina Rodriguez) and Noah (Scott Eastwood), want more exciting flavours for their love lives. Instead of recognizing unhealthy appetites, however, Peter and Emma scream for more. A chance encounter in a stairwell (they work in the same building) leads the two strangers to become allies.
While Peter and Emma basically live on autopilot, their exes move quickly. Anne, an English teacher, is already shacking up with Logan (Manny Jacinto). Buff, handsome, artsy, and ambitious, he’s Peter’s antithesis. Ditto Noah’s new thang Ginny (Clark Backo), an ambitious entrepreneur who serves a fine slice of pie. As Peter and Emma reconnoiter the paths of each other’s exes, they make a pact with cruel intentions to break up the shiny new couples.
Literally anyone can see where I Want You Back is going. Peter and Emma are—spoiler alert!—a way better fit for one another than either of their exes were. This becomes apparent as they trade dating tips and express the gaps they hope to fill by reclaiming love. Emma, for example, likens true love to finding someone who’ll help you with your oxygen mask on a crashing airplane. Peter doesn’t quite get the metaphor. And, frankly, it doesn’t quite matter if one’s in a plane speeding towards the ground. The joke, like the airplane, doesn’t really need to land. It merely offers one of many signposts in the film’s predictable trajectory.
The pals also learn more about each other as the infiltrate the exes’ lives. Peter becomes a client at Noah’s gym with plans to befriend him while training. Naturally, it works, even though Noah is totally ripped and fit, while Peter wheezes and rocks a dad bod. There’s a break-up plan in there somewhere beyond workouts.
For Emma, it’s simply a matter of catching Logan’s eye and initiating a threesome. That plot hatches as she volunteers in his high school production of The Little Shop of Horrors (sure, why not?) and delivers thirsty looks between line-readings and saucy stage repartee that would land any high schooler in detention. She and Logan have a decent spark, though, whereas Anne seems especially shrill and frigid. (But that could just be a Gina Rodriguez thing.) Just as the school play inspires Emma to coast back to her comfort zone, there’s the palpable thrill seduction—sloppy and off-the-mark, of course, with Emma’s rusty moves.
Charming Leads Overcome Predictability
No sooner than one can say, “kiss and make up,” things get predictably messy. Love, Simon writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger know their rom-coms well and draw from a handy assortment of inspirations. One doesn’t need a film degree to guess futures of Peter, Emma, Anne, and Noah. A pulse will do.
It largely works thanks to the chemistry and winning performances from Day and especially Slate. One can’t help but find these misfits endearing. They’re awkward and messy, yet more authentic than their pined-over exes are. Anne and Noah never feel real, but Peter and Emma do thanks to their imperfections. (As the fresh dates, Jacinto adds a fun jolt of energy, but Backo gets basically nothing to do in a thankless role.) I Want You Back admittedly gives Slate for more to do than Day, which makes some of the romantic hi-jinks imbalanced, especially as she gets bigger moments, funnier, and sexier moments with Jacinto, whereas Peter’s thread with Noah and Ginny often treads sitcom material. Bringing the same effortlessness she displayed in her breakthrough Obvious Child, Slate keeps the film grounded.
While the film runs long at nearly two hours and feels longer with the narrative signposts along the way, Day and Slate inspire one to stick it out with the sad-sack sisters. Peter and Emma’s desire for comfort and familiarity is warmly reassuring. I Want You Back is a lighthearted rom-com staple that delivers exactly what a lovelorn viewer wants on a night in streaming movies alone with comfort food and the cat. It’s funny even if the jokes are well worn; charming even if magic is second hand.
I Want You Back debuts on Amazon Prime on February 11.