Thursday, May 30, 2024

Movie Review: ‘I Want You Back’ Offers a Great Cast & Sharp Writing

Most romantic comedies are, from the first few frames, quite predictable. Yes, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan will eventually meet and fall in love; yes, Harry and Sally will eventually realize they are perfect for each other; yes, the ‘ugly’ girl will realize beauty is within and fall for the guy who believed in her the whole time. The outcomes are always fixed positions within the romcom formula. The magic isn’t in the structure, the story – always very similar – that’s being told: instead, the magic can be found in the chemistry of the leads. 

What is When Harry Met Sally without Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s electric chemistry? What is Sleepless in Seattle/You’ve Got Mail without Tom Hanks’ and, er, Meg Ryan’s easy charisma? A good romantic comedy lives and dies with its leads, and in Jason Orley’s I Want You Back, the leads ensure this movie not only lives but thrives. Charlie Day and Jenny Slate are both comedy stalwarts by now; he from his timeless run in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, she from far more numerous projects including her time on SNL, Parks & Rec, Big Mouth, and Bob’s Burgers. Together they elevate what might’ve been a typical middle-of-the-road romcom into something more accessible and charming.

Peter (Day) and Emma (Slate) have never met, despite working in the same building. This all changes when they are both dumped by their respective partners and decide to hide out in the building’s fire escape. Peter tells Emma about Anne (Gina Rodriguez), his girlfriend of six years who dumped him quite suddenly, while Emma relates the story of how she was dumped by her boyfriend Noah (Scott Eastwood). They find comfort in each other, drinking their woes away at karaoke bars, until they come to a realization: they can help each other win their partners back. It’s a Strangers on a Train style bargain and execution: Emma will seduce Anne’s new boyfriend Logan (Manny Jacinto), breaking up the relationship and clearing the path for Peter, while Peter will befriend Noah and convince him that he is still in love with Emma. 

So far, so predictable. Yes, it looks very much like Peter and Emma are destined to fall in love. Yes, that line Emma says about wanting a boyfriend who will put her safety mask on for her if there is an emergency during a flight will mean something later. Yes, yes, yes. If you have an idea of where the movie is going, you’re probably right. However, the sharp writing and pitch perfect delivery of the leads makes it all worthwhile: Charlie Day could play this kind of character in his sleep by now; his Peter is well meaning and very affable, but stuck in the doldrums. Having sold out his dream career to work for an evil corporate company – and this is underlined by a scene in which said company tries to save money by essentially starving old people in retirement homes – he is flightless and deflated. An early scene with his ex’s nephew shows how good he is with kids, though, and a later scene in which he helps an old lady with her lunch shows him for the caring person he is. Day carries all of these moments in typical fashion: Peter doesn’t know his own worth, and it shows. 

Emma is a bored receptionist. She is directionless and unmotivated, living in shared accommodation with a couple who are studying to be lawyers and whom indulge in incredibly loud sex in the middle of the day – leading to one of the film’s better scenes in which the traditional mid-film beat where the main characters open up to each other is underscored by raucous lovemaking coming from the room next door.

Slate has arguably the more heavy-lifting of the pair: Emma’s prospects are more limited than Peter’s, and her arc takes on far more of an emotional journey, at least until the end. While Day is great in his role, Slate makes I Want You Back what it is. The friendship she strikes up with a young delinquent whose parents might be divorcing is touching, and a scene where she reenacts The Little Shop of Horrors onstage with another young boy is hilarious and charming. Slate has that quixotic, manic-pixie-girl streak which can make her both endearing and tragic at the same time.

I Want You Back doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It is a familiar set up and execution which relies on the chemistry of its leads. Orley and his screenwriters – Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger – manage an impressive blend of romance, comedy, and pathos while keeping the pacing consistent. Luckily, the movie boasts two comedians at the top of their game who carry everything, and it works. You might not find anything new here, but if you’re a fan of the romcom genre you’ll find a winning, wholesome entry that is refreshingly equal parts com as it is rom. With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s a perfect date movie to kick-start that new relationship of your own.

Grade – B+

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