Valentine’s Day has come and gone. It’s just as well. “I Want You Back,” while engineered as a Valentine’s date movie, is an R-rated rom-com that probably won’t make you laugh till you cry. There aren’t really any rom-coms that do that anyway. “I Want You Back” is more like a movie that’ll make you chuckle when your Valentine’s date is a year-long relationship, and you watch it together on the couch.
But will you chuckle a lot? Will you chuckle heartily? Possibly. I didn’t initially want to like it. But it tries so hard and so relentlessly that over a long period of time (and it’s definitely too long), you get tired of having your arms crossed in defiance, and when you drop them, you start dropping the rest of your defenses.
And when two grown men invited to a house party by pretty young women jump off the roof into a hot tub (woo-hoo!) and then discover that the women in question are naughty, naughty underage teens, and an irate dad shows up, and now you’ve got two soaked, terrified men in underwear trying to explain to dad (“Don’t call me “sir”! You’re my age!!”) how they ended up at a party with 17-year-olds—you have to chuckle a bit.
Reverse ‘Parent Trap’
Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day) are complete strangers working in the same healthcare building. They both get unexpectedly dumped by their respective significant others, Noah (Scott Eastwood) and Anne (Gina Rodriguez), on the same weekend. Back at work, neither Emma nor Peter can keep it together, and they surreptitiously rush to the stairwell for some discreet, cathartic bawling. And guess who they run into?
“You have mascara all over your face,” Peter tells Emma. “You have, like, a piece of toilet paper … or something,” says Emma. They agree to meet and share their mutual dumpee experiences; it’s the epitome of misery loving company.
During a drunken karaoke session, they reveal to one another that they are terrified of being in their 30s and losing their shots at ever finding “The One.” As neither one wants to start over, Emma labels them the “sadness sisters,” and they devise a “Parent Trap”-like plot (or is it “Much Ado About Nothing”?) to win their special people back. They will fiendishly find a way to trash their exes’ new relationships, causing their beloveds to run like scalded dogs back into their waiting arms, with newfound appreciation. Let the lying and sneaking about begin!
How do they break up their exes? Peter hires Noah as his personal trainer, while Emma volunteers for a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” at the middle school where Anne works, which her new boyfriend (Manny Jacinto) happens to be directing. Yes, Emma’s ploy is barely realistic but, you know, it’s rom-com land.
Their Lives Beyond Their Love Lives
Peter’s crisis is somewhat more urgent than Emma’s. He’s at that stage where all his friends have kids and happy careers, while he’s at a company he can’t stand, which features endless board meetings focused on how to quietly defund healthcare for the elderly. Peter’s life-vision is to open a good nursing home.
Emma is stuck in the post-college drifting phase of working a survival job (answering the phone at an orthodontist’s office), with two pre-med college roommates who are in an annoying, er, loud, relationship. Her situation prompts Peter to gift her “What Color Is Your Parachute.”
The rom-com genre trope that’s always in danger of becoming clichéd is The Universe Reveals Its Plan While You’re Looking the Other Way. When done correctly—as in “When Harry Met Sally” (about characters who form a believable bond), or “While You Were Sleeping” (about characters with unfulfilled dreams), or “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (about characters who create a messy web of sabotage)—it can work like a charm.
“I Want You Back” is less successful in conjuring this magic. In a good rom-com, even though you know the main couple is going to wake up to the fact that they’re in love with the person they thought they weren’t in the least bit interested in, you—and the characters themselves—can’t really see it coming. Even though you know it’s coming, the movie does some sleight of hand, like NFL quarterbacks of old who were masters at hiding the football on their bodies so you couldn’t see it even though you knew they had it. Take, for example, main character Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) monologue from “Clueless,” fretting about her best friend’s interest in her older stepbrother, Josh, who drives her up a wall:
“Wait a second, what am I stressing about, this is like, Josh. Okay, okay … What would he want with Ty, she couldn’t make him happy, Josh needs someone with imagination, someone to take care of him, someone to laugh at his jokes in case he ever makes any … then suddenly … (pause) Oh my god! I love Josh!”
In “I Want You Back,” you can never not see it coming. That said, Day and Slate, after years of being typecast in quirky, wisecracking supporting roles, get a chance to shine. Hopefully, their next projects will be shinier.
Begins streaming Feb. 11 on Amazon Prime Video.
‘I Want You Back’
Director: Jason Orley
Starring: Jenny Slate, Charlie Day, Scott Eastwood, Gina Rodriguez
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Feb. 11, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars