Modern romantic comedies often run into a problem wherein the central conceit is often so deplorable from an ethical standpoint that even the charisma of the talent of the movie stars involved can’t do much to save it. I Want You Back faces a similar hurdle and clears it for much of the film until it starts to lose faith in itself.
Jason Orley has watched his share of romantic comedies. All the beats and rhythms are there, and he’s unafraid to make his characters unlikable without making us like them. Of course, it helps that the script by Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger allows the characters to live in a space where they can be emotionally messy, as it were. Unlike many rom-coms, the characters in I Want You Back are darker while having the same scruples and being aware of how dodgy the entire thing is.
Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) work in the same office building on different floors. As fate would have it, both are dumped by their respective partners and find themselves crying in the same stairwell. Peter has just been dumped by his longtime partner Anne (Gina Rodriguez), a high school English teacher, for being too dull. Meanwhile, Emma’s ex-boyfriend, a well-meaning himbo Noah (Scott Eastwood), has met someone else.
Anne has started dating the drama teacher Logan (Manny Jacinto), while Noah has begun seeing the woman who runs the local pie shop Ginny (Clark Backo). After a night of drinking and unloading their relationship woes to each other, Peter and Emma hatch a plan doomed to backfire. Peter will befriend Noah and try to get him to dump Ginny and go back to Emma. In turn, Emma will try and seduce Noah and drive a wedge between him and Anne.
To Orley and the writer’s credit, much of I Want You Back works because the characters realize, on some level, what they’re doing is wrong. Aptaker and Berger understand that people are emotionally complex at the best of times, even more so doing a break-up. The movie never excuses Peter and Emma but feels sorry for them. Orley walks a fine line between objective and subjective filmmaking, allowing us to watch Peter and Emma unravel in darkly comical fashions.
Even Noah and Anne are shown to be not the paragon of virtues as Peter and Emma have made them out to be. Anne seems possessive and jealous of her new beau Logan, and Noah seems to be a recovering partier. But that’s part of the charm of I Want You Back. The characters seem human in a way that is ingratiating and refreshing. It’s hard to root for anybody, not because everybody is terrible, but because no one is portrayed as good or bad.
Slate and Day make for a perfect couple of misfits who don’t realize it’s time to move on. One of the aspects of I Want You Back that I loved was its understanding of people and how they talk. Slate and Day have a way of tossing off one-liners and jokes as if it’s natural conversation and also laughing when they think it’s funny. They have an easy way with each other and bond almost effortlessly.
They are a type of couple that the audience understands immediately should end up together. Despite Peter and Emma’s questionable actions, they exude a sweet innocence as they go about trying to sabotage their ex’s newfound happiness. Jenny Slate has one of my favorite faces, if only because it doesn’t look like every other face in Hollywood. She’s expressive and endearing and maintains a hint of mischievousness that keeps you guessing what her reaction might be. I loved her in Obvious Child and found her as tender and sharp-witted as she is here. She again proves that she makes for a refreshing leading lady, and we can’t help but fall in love with her.
Day is good as Peter but struggles with his character’s arc, yo-yoing back and forth. But he finds grace notes and plays Peter as a good man who’s lost his rock and feels lost. In addition, Day finds ways to make Peter relatable by dialing into his self-loathing without realizing that he is the only person who judges him so harshly for his failure in himself.
Except Peter finds Noah to be a great friend. Eastwood plays Noah as a well-meaning himbo struggling to find maturity and gives him a sweet misguided boyish charm. For her part, Emma, through volunteering to help Logan with his production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” realizes she has a lot to work through. Logan may be pretentious, but he’s sincere and struggling with where he landed in life, like everyone else. Jacinto and Rodriguez nail that couple you can tell are into each other but maybe just a little too much, as if both are using the relationship to combat something else in their lives.
One of the film’s best scenes involves Emma standing in as Audrey in a dress rehearsal with the band. Then, of course, there’s a whole thing about Emma lying about being in the show when she was younger to sweet talk Logan into letting her volunteer when in reality, she’s never even heard of the show. But, instead of milking that for awkward and uncomfortable gags, Aptaker and Berger use it as a way for Emma to realize how sad she really is through a rendition of “Suddenly Seymour” while also having her dealing with heartbreak, her pattern with men, and how she may have feelings for Peter that are deeper than she imagined.
The scene is, far and away, one of the best parts of I Want You Back and demonstrates what works and doesn’t work. The scene cuts between Emma and Peter, who is at a club partying with Noah, to highlight where each person is on their journey. It’s a nice touch because we see Peter spraying champagne in a club. Although, at the same time, the lyrics talk about what a stable and considerate guy Seymour is, we see the exact opposite of a character who is Emma’s Seymour.
The script isn’t afraid to let its characters grow as they stumble through personal growth. Emma even befriends a student who seems to be having trouble at home and discovers that she’s pretty good with kids. Perhaps it’s because I love Jenny slate’s face, but I loved her as a leading lady. Her Emma isn’t a saint or a devil so much as a mixed-up girl trying to figure out what’s next for a woman who dropped out of college to take care of her dying father.
Sadly, Peter doesn’t get Peter slowly begins to realize he doesn’t have many friends, and Noah isn’t that bad of a guy. Peter doesn’t have a “Suddenly Seymour” scene, and that’s part of what holds I Want You Back. Not to mention there is a scene towards the end of the movie that crosses a line in a way the film has skirted for most of its runtime but has the added insult of being completely unnecessary.
It involves Peter hiding out in Noah’s room after a failed attempt to make it seem like he was cheating, only to witness Noah’s proposal to Ginny. Unfortunately, the scene goes on far too long and ends much too tidily. The scene doesn’t work because Peter may not be a great guy, but he is somewhat of a good guy, and it seems out of character. More than anything, the scene seems like a gross misunderstanding of the adage “show doesn’t tell.”
Combine that scene with an earlier scene in which Peter and Noah go home with some ladies they met at the club, only to realize after getting drunk and taking Molly that the girls are much younger than they said they were, and Peter’s adventures seem more man-childish. The scene is saved somewhat by the appearance of Pete Davidson as one of the girl’s exes who both befriend and begrudge Peter.
Once Peter realizes the girls are underage, he and Noah flee just as the father gets home. I get that it’s meant to show Peter bonding with Noah. But in these scenes, it feels like Peter is regressing. It starts to create this weird dichotomy of two Peters, the one where he’s a nice, caring, empathetic guy when he’s with Anne or Emma and a selfish a-hole when he’s with other dudes.
I Want You Back slowly devolves into unnecessary scenes and scenes that feel added to make the characters less complex and tidier for the romantic ending. I found myself going back and forth on whether I wanted them to end up together. Suffice it to say, I like the direction Orely and the writers chose to go.
Brian Burgoyne has shot films such as The Big Sick and Other People. He understands how to frame a shot to where it’s not bland but also in a way that allows us to see an actor’s performance. Burgoyne almost always finds a way to light and shoot a scene to enhance the performance instead of flashy style. This results in films that may not look pristine but are still far from being photographed radio plays.
I Want You Back isn’t perfect. It flat-out lost me in a couple of places, but I always found my way back. It is by no means a great movie. However, it does have at least one great scene, which is more than a lot of movies have.
Images courtesy of Amazon Studios
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