Jenny Slate and Charlie Day in Amazon’s ‘I Want You Back’: Film Review

Two strangers team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships in this rom-com co-starring Gina Rodriguez, Scott Eastwood and Manny Jacinto.

Break-up advice teeters between dubious proclamations about the virtues of self-love and rash appeals to move on. Rarely are the heartbroken encouraged to return to their lovers, to seek restitution of a sepia-hued past. That would be ill-advised, right? No doubt a set up for additional pain. A fool’s errand at best.

Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate), the affable protagonists of Jason Orley’s charming romantic comedy I Want You Back, would disagree — respectfully, of course. The two freshly dumped individuals are convinced that the only way forward is to move adamantly backward.

I Want You Back

The Bottom Line

A breezy charmer.

Release date: Friday, Feb. 11
Cast: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez
Director: Jason Orley
Screenwriters: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger

Rated R,
1 hour 51 minutes

Written by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (This is Us), I Want You Back is an earnest and honeyed tale of audaciously pursuing lost love. The narrative cruises to a satisfying finish. The jokes go down easy. The characters grow in predictable directions. The film rarely strays from its genre’s conventions, and that’s not a complaint. Sometimes staying in one lane yields the most gratifying results.

The quirky, occasionally drawn-out adventure begins in the stairwell of an office building in Atlanta, Georgia. Emma is a receptionist for an orthodontist on 14. Peter works three floors down as vice president of a corporation callously trying to cut costs in their network of retirement homes. (Ideas floated during a recent meeting include removing ice from beverages and replacing real chicken with a new product called “Hint of Chicken.”) Still reeling from their unexpected break-ups, the two separately seek refuge in the quiet, underlit area. At last! They can cyberstalk their exes and cry in peace!

The pair’s inevitable encounter — they hear each other crying — leads to shared cigarettes, quick confessions and a drunken night of karaoke and half-baked admissions. On never finding love, Emma opines: “Dying alone is not that bad. Why do you want someone to watch you die, that’s like actually embarrassing?” And on the freedom of being single, Peter declares: “I’m really looking forward to all the apps…that’s going to be cool.” Convincing? No. Entertaining? Yes.

A friendship is born after that evening. Emma and Peter vow to be “Sadness Sisters” and promise to prevent each other from contacting their exes. That is, until they check Instagram and see that their loves have moved on. Emma’s ex, Noah (Scott Eastwood), a personal trainer, is dating and gleefully posting about Ginny (Clark Backo), a beauty who owns a pie shop. Peter sees photos of his ex, Anne (Gina Rodriguez), a middle school English teacher, snuggling with drama teacher Logan (Manny Jacinto) and leaving suggestive comments on his posts. The pain of heartbreak redoubles, and Emma and Peter’s innocent promise morphs into a gnarled plan to win back Noah and Anne.

The pair embark on a less than sexy Cruel Intentions-esque mission to sabotage their exes’ relationships. Emma plans to seduce Logan, a move that will surely force Anne to break up with him. Peter takes a different route: He will hire Noah as a personal trainer, befriend him and then convince him to return to Emma. This was never a good strategy to begin with, but Emma and Peter’s unbridled desperation to restore stability in their lives, coupled with their wry, easy humor, makes you almost believe it might work.

Aptaker and Berger’s screenplay indulges in the details of Emma and Peter’s execution, a choice rewarded by delightful comedic bits flaunting the writers’ humor and Orley’s assured direction. It helps, too, that Day and Slate make an entertaining pair, delivering their lines with wit and finesse. Slate nestles into her character’s emotional grooves, and in her capable hands, Emma evolves beyond the archetype of the kooky female rom-com lead. The ease with which she slips into the role of saboteur while nimbly deflecting questions points to a broader anxiety with herself. Day doesn’t stretch as much, but he nonetheless disarms as the perpetually friend-zoned love interest.

Trailing these leads is Jacinto (The Good Place), who steals his few scenes. He plays Logan, an aggrieved experimental theater director turned middle school drama instructor, with amusing self-seriousness. (When will he be cast as a lead in a rom com?)

Key performances anchor I Want You Back, but it’s the film’s self-awareness that grabs our attention. Spare, sometimes obvious cinematography by Brian Burgoyne and the soothing score by Siddhartha Khosla (This Is Us, Only Murders in the Building) remind us that the film is, above all, aiming to be a heartwarming romantic comedy — the kind best enjoyed on a chilly evening, wrapped in the warmth of blankets and the laughter of friends.

Full credits

Distributor: Amazon, Vertical Entertainment
Production companies: Amazon, Big Indie Pictures, The Safran Company, The Walk-Up Company
Cast: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May and Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Screenwriters: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger
Producers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger, John Rickard, Peter Safran
Executive producers: Bart Lipton, Adam Londy
Director of photography: Brian Burgoyne
Production designer: Michael Perry
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Jonathan Schwartz
Composer: Siddhartha Khosla
Casting director: John Papsidera

Rated R, 1 hour 51 minutes