For a movie with such a farfetched premise, I Want You Back is authentically charming and strangely relatable. Unlike most romantic comedies, which feature two ludicrously gorgeous, fiercely independent leads who hate each other for most of the movie before falling in love in the last act, Jason Orley’s second feature focuses on the devastating heartache after a breakup and how it can make us act, shall we say, out of character.
The two protagonists in this film are miserable, resentful, and driven by a need for validation (some might call it revenge). These are not romcom’s usual likable characters. If it were pitched in the 90s, Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger would’ve passed on it quickly. Cute or not, Orley’s ability to squeeze laughs out of painful scenarios while sustaining a nimble, quick-witted tone heralds the arrival of a director who knows his craft and genre well.
In the first five minutes of this movie, we’re plunged into the dire bleakness of heartbreak. It’s just another lovely day for Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day), who think everything is going well with their respective partners, Noah (Scott Eastwood) and Anne (Gina Rodriguez), when they’re both unexpectedly dumped by them. They attempt to move on with their barren lives, Emma as a receptionist in an orthodontist’s office and Peter as a corporate lackey for a retirement firm. Each night they drink, eat, and cry themselves to sleep while obsessively looking at their ex’s Instagram accounts, which is a horrible idea. Apparently, their exes have found new lovers and are doing just fine without them. One day Emma and Peter meet in their shared building’s stairwell where they commiserate over their recent decrepitude.
Soon, these two miserable clowns concoct a plan to sabotage Noah and Anne’s blossoming affairs with their new paramours, bakery owner Ginny (Clark Backo) and high school drama teacher Logan (Manny Jacinto). By destroying their ex’s new relationships, they hope they’ll run back into their arms for consolation. Peter quickly befriends Noah, a sweet but dimwitted fitness trainer who swears that the term, “Jump back on the horse” is actually, “Jump back on the whore.” Meanwhile, Emma volunteers for the high school production of Little Shop of Horrors where she can seduce Logan away from Anne. She doesn’t have any children however, so her presence is a little odd. As Emma and Peter’s scheme gains momentum, so does the movie, and before you know it, you’re along for the ride, which is both a little trite and familiar, but also undeniably hysterical.
As we saw in his debut, Big Time Adolescence, Orley is fascinated by adults who really have no concept of adulthood at all. At one point, Emma tells a high school kid, “We’re all just pretending that we know what we’re doing.” As played by comedy veterans Charlie Day and Jenny Slate, these overgrown children are preposterous but also sympathetic. Manny Jacinto and Gina Rodriguez bring some authenticity and zest to their characters as well. However, the real comedic revelation here is burgeoning action star, Scott Eastwood (son of a guy named Clint), who’s easily the funniest person in the movie. As Noah, Eastwood exudes an earnest albeit ignorant charm. You just wish he had more screen time.
From the previews alone, you’ll know that I Want You Back is not trying to break new ground. The story is far from original and you can see the end coming miles away. But it also never veers off course into oversentimentality, which Judd Apatow’s films intermittently fall prey to. Screenwriting partners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (Love, Simon) are more interested in the poignancy of our shared deficiencies and bumbling neuroses than striving for ingenuity. Narratively, the movie dips a little in the second act and could use some trimming to bring down the running time, but these are modest gripes for a fun Valentine’s Day flick that achieves its goals. What is original and refreshing however is its lack of villainy; everyone in the story is simply trying to follow their given paths and do their best. Breakups are hard, but this charming comedy reminds us that there will always be a little light even in the darkest of times.