With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, Amazon Studios was ready to capitalize on the mock holiday with its latest original film: I Want You Back. A story of two individuals who bond over a recent break-up and concoct a plan to help each other win back their exes, it’s kind of an oddity when it comes to the average rom-com.
What I mean is, this isn’t really about a budding romance between two leads that concludes with a kiss and the man whisking the woman off her feet and carrying her into a sunset. I Want You Back is actually quite a bit more realistic about its prospects, even if it’s infused with some gross-out humor and larger-than-life scenarios.
It’s quite charming but mostly suffers from feeling like a sequence of improv sets stitched together.
I Want You Back
Director: Jason Orley
Release Date: February 11, 2022 (Amazon Prime Video)
Without introducing us to our leads in the slightest, I Want You Back begins with Emma (Jenny Slate) meeting her boyfriend, Noah (Scott Eastwood), for lunch. At the same time across town, Peter (Charlie Day) is at a birthday party for his girlfriend Anne’s (Gina Rodriguez) nephew. As if the universe truly hates these characters, both are dumped by their partners at exactly the same moment for various undiscernible reasons. Noah is fed up with Emma not being responsible or having her life “figured out” while Anne feels that Peter’s complacency is stifling her creativity.
After a rather depressing opening shot of Emma crying while the title card rolls, the film shifts to the next day where both Emma and Peter return to work and can’t quite keep themselves together. Peter lets out an audible “What the fuck?” during a meeting at his retirement home planning job while Emma winds up running to the stairwell from her dental reception job after two teenagers profess their love for each other. As luck would have it, the two work in the same office building and wind-up catching wind of each other’s misery.
A friendship is quickly formed and the two spend the night together drinking and singing karaoke to drown their sorrows. With clear-ish minds the next day, the two go to a film and hatch a somewhat diabolical plan to work together to get their exes back. As you probably guessed from the genre of film, Emma and Peter quickly grow closer as their plan gets more and more solidified over the coming days.
At this point, I thought the general story was going to progress in a way where the two leads would realize they love each other and forget about their exes. Instead, I Want You Back actually diverts from romcom standards and has the story go in the other direction. Emma and Peter actually do commit to their idea and start going through the steps to break up their exes from their new lovers. It’s weirdly twisted, but also a sign of how desperation can make lonely people act in diabolical ways.
That’s actually giving the film too much credit because there isn’t much depth here. The character interactions are what I Want You Back is all about. Emma and Peter don’t have that much chemistry, but a lot of their moments together sound and feel like an improvisational comedy. I may have summarized the events into a coherent plot, but the film rarely has a sense of pacing or structure. The movie likes to bounce around between Emma and Peter’s struggles with little setup or payoff.
It’s not as dire as I’m making it sound, but something that begins to wear you down as the film goes on. The absolute best part of the movie is the middle where things seem worst. Emma and Peter had discovered that Anne was hooking up with her school’s theatre teacher, Logan (Manny Jacinto), so Emma volunteers to help with the student production of Little Shop of Horrors. At the same time, Peter had joined Noah’s gym in an attempt to get closer to his new girlfriend, Ginny (Clark Backo), and is actually now friends with Noah. The two are at a nightclub and Noah accidentally pocket dials Emma.
She gets her hopes up only to have them dashed while forgetting that she was subbing for the role of Audrey in the play. With her heart torn asunder and with nothing left to lose, she belts out a magnificent performance of “Suddenly Seymour” that basically summarizes her struggle and gives her catharsis. With the young kid next to her playing Seymour, it’s just very surreal to see the events play out.
This is really the only moment where everything comes together, though. Most of the film just feels a bit unfocused with jokes either being random or falling flat. I’ll never tire of Charlie Day’s delivery of outrageous material, but even he can’t elevate an otherwise mediocre plot to greatness. Jenny Slate, too, doesn’t seem to get much to work with as the film relies more on scenarios than delivery to generate comedy.
I guess I’m supposed to gasp in awe at how Emma suggests a threesome with her, Logan, and Anne, but it’s just kind of bland by modern standards. After decades of Judd Apatow pushing the boundary with films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, nothing really shocks me in R-rated comedies. Even Peter saying semen in a line barely got a chuckle out of me.
So why didn’t I end up hating I Want You Back? Honestly, it’s down to the charm and sweetness inherent to its plot. Sure, it may be scatterbrained and kind of all over the place, but eventually, Emma and Peter do start to realize their feelings for each other. Seemingly inconsequential dialogue comes back to inform later scenes and it helps fill in the gaps missing with the story. Peter mentioning he wanted to open his own retirement home and helping an old woman walk to a picnic table is also plain heartwarming.
But stuff like that is what eventually got through to me. It’s fine to have random bits of off-the-cuff comedy peppered throughout different scenes, but without some kind of through-line, even the best film would fall apart. I Want You Back doesn’t suddenly become a masterpiece and it certainly could do with some trimming (the nearly two-hour runtime is a bit much), but then the messiness of this film could be directly linked to the messiness of the leads.
I also have to give props for not going with the typical rom-com ending of everything being resolved by the finale. The movie ends on an ambiguous note that doesn’t necessarily signal a sequel but gives viewers enough clues to interpret their own ending. That and it does another callback that is so sweet, I think I formed a cavity by the time the credits rolled.
What it ultimately comes down to is that I Want You Back doesn’t do much to redefine rom-coms but has enough charm to overcome most of its flaws. There’s definitely a well-intentioned story at the heart of things and while I wish I could like the film more, it’s not a bad way to spend time with your friends or a significant other. Just make sure to set your expectations accordingly and you should wind up having fun.