“I kind of can’t believe it worked.”
It’s damn near impossible to make a timeless romantic comedy these days. The genre has almost been entirely relegated to the wastelands of the countless streaming platforms, where films are buzzed about for a week or so until the next noteworthy release drops. I’m not sure I Want You Back would have had the staying power to become cultural cannon even if it had been released in theaters; it stars recognizable faces but no real household names. But I think it could’ve had a longer shelf life had it not gone straight to VOD. Too few romantic comedies fail to really excel at inspiring love while also being genuinely funny. I Want You Back is an all too rare example of a film that can do both, and do them quite well. I wish more people would give it a shot.
Emma (Jenny Slate) sits across from the love of her life Noah (Scott Eastwood), eating brunch in an open air courtyard in Atlanta. She rambles about nonsense and Noah, a personal trainer, comments on how Emma could cook healthy meals for herself if she really tried. It’s his awkward way of segueing into their breakup. Later we meet Peter (Charlie Day), an affable and funny guy in a six year relationship with Anne (Gina Rodriguez). She’s clearly flustered and asks to speak later because they’re at a child’s birthday party, but Peter insists, and the breakup he never saw coming lands square on his glass chin. They are both shattered. With solid direction and a sharp script, the film proceeds to use a dated title card before mixing flashback footage of these now separated couples, alternating between when they were entirely in love and the intense sadness of the present, all while Jimmy Durante’s 1965 version of “The Glory of Love” plays over the top. Choices like these help separate a romantic comedy from the mostly run of the mill movies we get anymore.
Meeting in the same office building, Emma and Peter reveal their heartache, eventually teaming up to become a pair of homewreckers. Emma will seduce Anne’s new boyfriend Logan (Manny Jacinto), the pretentious musical director at the middle school where she teaches English. And in a funny bit, both admit Peter probably can’t steal away Noah’s new partner Ginny (Clark Backo), so he’ll infiltrate the two from a bromance angle. They agree to help each other get back what they’ve lost, because if they can’t have love then nobody else should either. If there’s any glaring issue with the film, it’s that it lingers a bit too long here in the second act, adding time to a movie that never drags along but is admittedly still a bit too long. But the reason that boredom doesn’t creep in is because Day and Slate work so damn well together. He’s believable as the kind of guy whose generosity and sincerity come from a genuine place, and Slate wears both sadness and quiet joy on her face with the best of them. I was skeptical of the casting going in and couldn’t have been proven any more wrong.
A decent romantic comedy doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel; we pretty much know how these vehicles are going to roll. But the very good ones, of which I Want You Back definitely classifies, change the direction of things ever so slightly. These really aren’t about the end game because more often than not we know where that’s going to be. So it’s refreshing that this film follows two adults who feel stuck at an age where they feel as though they should have things figured out by now. Maybe they’ll help each other get a little unstuck in the process of it all. I Want You Back earns its romance by investing in the little moments and developing these characters into people we might actually know, and it keeps us laughing along the way as a means of healing from the heartache. I bet you can guess exactly how it ends, and even then, I bet you can’t help but grin. That’s when you know something really works.
“You’re my slow burn.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5