I Want You Back (2022)

There are shades of Griffin Dunne’s underappreciated romantic comedy Addicted to Love in Amazon’s slick Valentine’s offering I Want You Back, stories of dumpees refusing to take no for an answer. But while there was a dark undercurrent disrupting the cutesy sight of Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick flirting in Manhattan way back when, the Big Time Adolescence director Jason Orley is less interested in the murk and keen, if not a little insistent, that his characters be liked, if not unconditionally loved.

It’s thus a far simpler, far more earnest film that one would expect from the spiky set-up that sees total strangers Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) bond over being dumped at the same time, fixating on the exes who have moved on without them. Their upset quickly turns to anger when they discover that their former lovers have replaced them with newer, sexier alternatives, and so they hatch a plan to go undercover and destroy the burgeoning relationships. Peter becomes gym buddies with Emma’s ex Noah (Scott Eastwood) while Emma tries to come between Peter’s ex Anne (Gina Rodriguez) and her new beau Logan (Manny Jacinto).

There’s something interestingly deluded and narcissistic about what drives the pair, a total denial of their immediate reality and a dogged insistence that they are better and more desirable than their exes’ new partners. It’s a heartbroken thought process that maybe some of us can vaguely relate to, but it’s the put-into-action plotting that elevates it into something wilder and less familiar. The combination of an R rating and the centering of two actors better known for playing comedy support than romantic leads would understandably have us expecting something riskier or raunchier, something closer to the Apatow-led boom in romcoms for adults. But the script, from the Love, Simon writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, is too wary to really go there, playing it safe when some recklessness would be welcomed, a freak flag barely flying at half-mast.

The uninventive schemes the two concoct are far too inoffensive and half-assed, and, especially on Day’s side, sometimes rather vague. There’s often not a clear reason why they’re doing what they’re doing, and a tighter, more carefully constructed script would have made us a little clearer on just what the point of so much of it is. Aptaker and Berger rely on a string of dog-eared comedy set pieces that we know too well at this stage – the drug scene, the threesome scene, the hiding in a bedroom scene, the karaoke scene, the club scene – and do very little to elevate them. The script feels a few punch-ups away from being as sharp and as funny as it could be, far too many lines falling flat, as if the first brainstormed joke (the “not this, but something like this” idea) was put in as a place-holder then they forgot to go back and change it (Eastwood’s character thinking that the line “get back on the horse” is “get back on the whores” is an example of a real clanger).

In order for us to truly love the pair without reservation, Aptaker and Berger go to great, pained lengths to offset their deranged behaviour. The dream of Day’s character is to revolutionise retirement-home living (!) so we see him helping elderly people, while Slate’s character develops a friendship with a struggling middle-schooler who needs advice on dealing with a fractured parental situation. There’s such a strange reluctance to lean into the darkness at the film’s core that the script turns them into the nicest stalkers we’ve ever met, rather than something messier and more believable. It’s not the more interesting, and more amusing, film it could have been but even at a slightly stretched 111 minutes, it’s still consistently entertaining, thanks in large part to the cast, but also to Orley, who manages against all odds to make it look and feel almost like a glossy studio movie. Shot in early 2021 and hampered by Covid-19 restrictions, Orley does a nifty job at not clueing us into any of that (unlike so many other films made in the last two years) and together with an immensely charming throwback score from Siddhartha Khosla, it really does feel that much more alive than the majority of what’s come out since the Netflix romcom resurrection.

Sitcom pros Jacinto and Rodriguez are both reliably strong, the latter allowed a more nuanced character arc than a film like this would often give her (refreshingly, neither the exes or their new partners are turned into easy villains). The deserved promotion of the leads from the sidelines to the main stage is a smooth transition, especially for Slate, a hugely capable comedic actor whose more recent projects haven’t always reflected her talent, something this film might hopefully shift. The one niggling issue, however, is that while Day and Slate make convincing beer-and-chips friends, sexual chemistry never really sparks, even in the last act, despite the script informing us of the power of the slow-burn romance.

There’s a far better version of I Want You Back somewhere, a few script revisions in and maybe without that air-sucking Pete Davidson cameo, but even as it stands, it’s a far better version of a romantic comedy than we’re used to streaming of late.

I Want You Back is available on Amazon Prime Video from 11 February
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