Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day) thought they were on the way to their good lives - Emma happily dating Noah (Scott Eastwood) for 18 months and Peter having spent a full-on six years with girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez).
Everything is sublime. Until it isn't.
With both Emma and Peter finding themselves dumped by their respective plus ones, Peter in a particularly humiliating way, it's destiny that the two will meet cute with a stairwell in the high-rise where the two work but have never met serving as the choice locale. Discovering their common ground, the two become friends equally commiserating for one another until a plot is hatched to help each other win back their partners - Emma will seduce Anne's new boyfriend, a drama teacher named Logan (Manny Jacinto), and Peter, not quite hunky to attract Ginny (Clark Backo), will befriend Noah and work his persuasive powers in a different way.
Just how much you embrace I Want You Back may very well depend upon your embrace of Emma and Peter, two incredibly likable who decide to do incredibly unlikable things in an effort to win back the people they're both convinced they're supposed to be with. It's a messy scenario, though both Slate and Day are well-cast here as essentially good people blinded by what they think is love. The script by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (Love, Simon) is surprisingly effective with its humor with both Slate and Day genuinely funny performers who know how to wring every moment of humor and emotion out of a line. I'd dare say that without Slate and Day, I Want You Back would have likely flopped miserably as a mean-spirited, unappealing rom-com. Instead, I Want You Back makes you like Emma and Peter even when you don't necessarily like what they're doing along the way.
You get it. You really get it. After all, haven't we all done some really stupid stuff in the name of love?
I sure have.
There's never really any doubt where I Want You Back is going and where it's all going to end up, though in this case it's most certainly the journey and not the destination that matters. Slate, who spent a season on Saturday Night Love from 2009-2010, has impressed me since all the way back to Obvious Child and I Want You Back takes advantage of her ability to project a sort of neurotic warmth meets slightly edgy, quirky girlfriend. She's a hoot here, an awkward yet hilarious threesome being particularly inspired, and yet there's never really a moment that we're not rooting for her.
Charlie Day tones down his usual shtick, a calmer demeanor adding emotional honesty while he's given a couple of really great comic moments.
Both Day and Slate are saddled with extraneous storylines that don't work quite as well - Emma's friendship with a morose 12-year-old feeling unnecessary and Peter's actions in the final third never quite convincing.
I Want You Back works primarily on the strength of its ensemble cast and the film manages to consistently engage and entertain even as it starts to fizzle a bit in final moments that never quite land. In addition to Slate and Day, Scott Eastwood shines as Noah while Clark Backo is under-utilized but effective as Ginny.
Most rom-coms these days seem to feature shiny and bright hipsters or twentysomethings who mutter the word "like" in every sentence. I Want You Back is a refreshingly mature rom-com with the dynamic of a late 30's Slate and a mid-40's Day an underlying, unspoken factor that adds depth to the conversations and adds tremendous meaning to the complicated grief that both Emma and Peter face as they face the uncertainty of life at a time when things are supposed to be a little more certain.
I Want You Back uses its music well, from the obvious title song to a rather warped but enjoyable version of Little Shop of Horrors' "Suddenly Seymour." I wanted to love I Want You Back a while lot more than I did, though Slate and Day are so enjoyable here that most of the film's faults are easily forgiven. Sometimes, films don't have to completely dazzle. They just have to entertain. I Want You Back may not necessarily be groundbreaking cinema, but it is an enjoyable couple of hours with two people we enjoy getting to know and we enjoy watching figure things out.
Opening on Prime Video just in time for Valentine's Day, I Want You Back is a light, warm, and emotionally honest rom-com for adults.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic