On paper, Charlie Day and Jenny Slate make a rom-com pair of two kinds at once: Unexpected and grating. But the movie making that pairing, Jason Orley’s I Want You Back, proves half of that presumption wrong. Unexpected? Sure. Day doesn’t exactly scream “romantic comedy leading man.” Mostly, he’s just known for screaming. But neither he nor Slate are grating in the least, whether separately or together. Indeed, the movie’s greatest surprise is how well Day and Slate cohere as a duo, which reveals a second surprise, like finding the prize in the cereal and finding another prize stowed away in the box. What happy fortune!
Day plays Peter. Slate plays Emma. I Want You Back starts off by cross-cutting between them as they unknowingly compete for gold in synchronized heartbreak: Their significant others—respectively, Anne (Gina Rodriguez) and Noah (Scott Eastwood)—have grown weary of their relationships and decided to move on. Anne dumps Peter at her nephew’s birthday party. Noah dumps Emma over brunch. They don’t take the news well. But by chance, Peter and Emma find each other, bond in the manner of bros, and in a bit yanked out of Strangers on a Train (with 100% less murder), they cook up a harebrained scheme: Peter’s going to help Emma get Noah back, and Emma’s going to help Peter get Anne back.
There are two problems. First is Ginny (Clark Backo), Noah’s new squeeze, who owns and operates a successful pie shop. Second is Logan (Manny Jacinto), Anne’s co-worker, the drama teacher at her school. So Peter and Emma’s real mission becomes a search for the right stratagem to break up one another’s exes, a recipe for wacky fun, a chance for self-discovery and even…new love?
As a narrative, I Want You Back is nothing if not predictable. Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger carve their screenplay out of familiar and easygoing tropes, and do not for a moment appear to have considered taking the rom-com formula in remotely new directions: Lovesick characters devise a plan to cure their lovesickness, they carry the plan out, the plan backfires, everyone has a laugh and maybe sheds a tear, and the movie ends with everything as anticipated. So it goes. But there’s nothing wrong with formula, because formula works when outfitted with the right variables, in this case Day and Slate. They’re a hoot together.
One hallmark of contemporary studio comedies is apparent disdain for the antediluvian concept of a script, as if following words on a page has grown passé and allowing actors to make up gags as they go along has become the preferred method. There are, of course, people with a facility for improv, and I Want You Back gives the sense that Day and Slate are two of them: There’s a casual amiability at the heart of their interactions, an unshakeable feeling that they’re so relaxed in their roles and their screen partnership that what reads as riffing comes naturally. It’s entirely possible that they aren’t riffing at all, and that Aptaker and Berger’s work was adhered to with minimal alterations during the shoot. If that’s the case, then the alternative explanation to Day and Slate’s charming performances is that they’re good at acting. This is a slightly less satisfying account, but it’s offset by the satisfaction of their screen presence.
Peter is characterized by affability. He can make friends with anyone. You want him to make friends with you, too, but watching him make friends with Noah—whom Eastwood plays with a chipper, modern-day masculinity that’s shockingly approachable—suffices. Emma is characterized by empathy. She feels deeply for others, whether Peter or Trevor (Luke David Blumm), a troubled kid at Anne’s school whom she befriends and comforts. Day and Slate treat them both as authentic people instead of as caricatures: Prototypical Day freakouts are absent from I Want You Back, and Slate carries herself as she does in films like Landline, putting realness ahead of silliness. When the movie does get silly—and, whether at an ill-advised clubbing afterparty or an awkward attempt at a threesome, the movie does get very silly indeed—it’s buttressed by all of the relatable, wonderful humanity Orley’s leads bring to their parts.
The film leaves itself dangling in the climax with a couple of plot resolutions that don’t quite land or which clang against the spirit Orley, Day, Slate and frankly everybody else on board foster throughout the rest of its running time. There’s another minor quibble, too: Studios today are seemingly incapable of making comedies that clock in at 90 minutes. I Want You Back is just a symptom of that problem, though, and the minutes it has are mostly used well, so the stumbling pace it hits toward the end can be forgiven. More studio comedies should take chances on their principal cast members the way I Want You Back does. Even if little else here worked, at least Day and Slate do.
Director: Jason Orley
Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger
Starring: Jenny Slate, Charlie Day, Noah Eastwood, Gina Rodriguez, Clark Backo, Manny Jacinto, Luke David Blumm, Isabel May, Pete Davidson
Release Date: February 11, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.