I Want You Back is a confidently conventional rom-com with a cast that is a lot more comedically talented than most films of its kind.
Amidst the cynicism of the modern cinematic landscape, the romantic comedy stands out as a genre stubbornly unchanged. It’s a relatively strict genre, following a formula established nearly a century ago when Clark Gable sat next to the Claudette Colbert on a bus in Frank Capra’s 1934 blueprint It Happened One Night: two people meet under unconventional circumstances and embark on a comedy of errors that brings them together and inadvertently causes them to fall in love. Knowing this, I Want You Back slyly announces its intentions early on, as Emma (Jenny Slate) teases Peter (Charlie Day) that he’s not attractive enough to fall in love with at first sight — he’s more of a slow-burn attraction, she says — and while it’s a hilarious moment in a film packed wall-to-wall with laugh-out-loud comedy, it’s also ostensibly a promise. As a seventh grader (Luke David Blumm) later jokes, “I don’t know what platonic means, but you’re my girlfriend now.”
As a genre that is essentially defined by every film under its label following such a similar structure, each rom-com sets itself apart in subtle ways. In the case of I Want You Back, we are presented with a millennial romance, fueled by the angst that, in their 30s, they have lost their shot at happily ever after and are horrified at the prospect of having to start over. When the two recently dumped strangers stumble upon each other’s sorrow in the stairwell of the office building where they both hate working, their commiseration turns into a mission to help each other con their respective exes back into their lives. Emma agrees to seduce Peter’s ex Anne’s (Gina Rodriguez) new boyfriend Logan (Manny Jacinto, of The Good Place fame), and Peter agrees to befriend Emma’s ex Noah (the ever charming Scott Eastwood), each in an effort to sabotage their new relationships and remind them of what they’re missing. It’s a classic setup that sets up a classic movie that is a lot funnier than the majority of its counterparts.
The self-dubbed Sadness Sisters, an alliance which had begun as a pact to help each other get over their breakups, almost immediately evolves into something more diabolical. One of the movie’s major strengths is in recognizing the severity of their actions, and as the characters sneak and spy their way around sabotaging each other’s exes, the consequences are all the funnier for it. They’re sympathetic characters and we want them to succeed, but the antics they get into along the way — Emma belting out a rendition of Suddenly Seymour fully costumed as Aubrey from Little Shop of Horrors, Peter jumping into a hot tub from the roof of a mansion — are really funny. There are real stakes, and so there’s real tension, and the screenplay and actors always know how to perfectly break that tension with a punchline – sometimes a quick joke, other times long, dragged out scenes of consequential situational comedy.
Charlie Day and Jenny Slate, both seasoned comedians in their own right, have an infectious chemistry that lights up the screen whenever they appear together, and the side characters and subplots are equally entertaining. This is no Hallmark romance, but an A-list movie filled with wonderful comedic talents and hard R material. It is as charming as it is funny, as romantic as it is comedic, balancing the two perfectly and making for a refreshingly familiar time at the movies. It’s a movie of freedom and spirit and discovery, of pursuing happiness wherever it may lead rather than being complacent with less than your dream. It is idealized, sentimental, and everything else you expect from a movie that wears its romcom label so proudly on its sleeve, making it an excellent addition to Valentine’s Day movie canon.
I Want You Back will premiere exclusively on Prime Video February 11, 2022 in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide.
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