Synopsis: Newly dumped thirty-somethings Peter and Emma team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships and win them back for good.
Stars: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May, Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: With Valentine’s Day racing toward us, many will be looking for that perfect movie to mark the day, one that matches with the mood they feel best fits the situation. Some may feel drawn to the weepy romance of true love lost, others prefer a madcap comedy that sends lovebirds on the run from a rogue they’ve crossed paths with, or maybe your kind of movie has nothing to do with Cupid’s biggest day of the year. February 14th might be the time you decide you finally need to check Lawrence of Arabia or Cujo off your list. Whatever your target is, libraries, theaters, and streaming services have you well covered.
As is typical whenever a holiday is near, there’s even last-ditch effort fresh content making a play for your attention, and I Want You Back is one of those movies, and I think it’s one worth considering. Available for free to Amazon Prime Members, this Amazon Studios production features a familiar-sounding set-up that manages to rise above recognizable cliches based almost solely on the striking appeal of its two stars. While the new Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson film Marry Me is opening in theaters and PeacockTV, this easy-to-like production should find a sizable audience who spot it on the Prime Video homepage.
Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger get the awkward stuff out of the way first, with Emma (Jenny Slate, On the Rocks) and Peter (Charlie Day, Vacation) getting dumped by the respective partners, much to their total shock. Peter’s long-time girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire) is an elementary teacher longing to pursue her passion for acting but feeling like it’s Peter’s lack of ambition which is the main factor holding her back. Personal trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) has tired of his years pushing Emma to figure out what she wants to do with her life and has met someone new, a pastry chef (Clark Backo, No Running) who has her own bakery. Neither dumpee takes the split very well, and that’s how both find each other nursing their wounds in the stairwell of the generic office complex where both work generic 9-5 jobs.
Realizing quickly they are bonded when it comes to being broken up with most egregiously, Emma and Peter make a pact to support one another through this challenging time. It’s an arrangement that morphs into a plan to block their exes from being happy with their new partners. So, Peter will befriend Noah and, through that bro-ship, remind him what he gave up. Emma will, in turn, ingratiate herself with Anne’s drama teacher boyfriend (Manny Jacinto, Bad Times at the El Royale) by working on his production of Little Shop of Horrors and seduce him away.
Going into the film, I didn’t think it would be possible to hold my interest for nearly two hours because these movies always tend to end in the same way. The question is always then how will the script keep the ones we know are meant to be together apart just long enough for them to conclude it’s not someone else they want but the person closest to them all along? That lack of suspense can make everything that happens between the first meeting and walk into the sunset feel like filler if you don’t have the right combination of actors, but director Jason Orley (The Intern) has found gold in Slate and Day.
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been Day’s biggest fan so far in his film career. While I know he carries a dedicated fan base from his long run with TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day’s raspy-voiced chirp hadn’t won me over quite yet. The opposite was true of Slate, who I came into the evening enjoying quite a lot. In a strange reversal, I found Day to be the stronger of the two and responsible for more of the heavy lifting and feeling more comfortable with it. We know that Emma has issues around being serious, but a little too much of that acidity can wear an audience down. Day applies the right amount of bite to his feelings on their situation, making his journey as detailed but allowing audiences to continue to empathize with his broken heart.
Helping everything along are a few inspired moments of comedy supplied by both stars. Even Day’s typical nervous uncomfortable banter comes across as well-tuned to the character he’s playing, and Slate takes that and plays off it nicely. Not to be outdone, Slate gets a surreal sequence when she finds herself stepping in at a last-minute technical rehearsal of the junior high musical she’s faked her way into working on. The hilarious image of her singing a duet with a boy half her height and not nearly old enough to drive is one that will stay with me (in a good way) for some time.
Where I Want You Back cuts some corners are the supporting players. It’s not an issue with the actors, but how the exes are written. It’s much easier to root for Emma and Peter to wise up and see they don’t need the people who dumped them if the characters are sour, and that’s mostly how Aptaker and Berger have sketched them. Anne lacks faith in Peter and projects her lack of drive on him, which then causes him to question his own goals. Did Emma need Noah to remind her she hasn’t done much with her life, or did she need a supportive partner that walked alongside her? It’s bad enough in movies when one character is blinded by a love that has long since burned out, but here we have two. At least Rodriguez and Eastwood soften some of those coarser edges. Eastwood has a strong showing here, and it’s one of his best screen roles so far in a career that hasn’t been as dependable as his famous father.
I know that not everyone embraces Valentine’s Day as the happiest of holidays, and maybe it is one of those days that’s been craftily promoted through the years by the greeting card companies. There is a way to take back the day, and that’s through making Valentine’s Day about you more than any commercial product. If you find yourself single, celebrate “you.” Those with significant others should have something up their sleeve. I’m not saying that surprising them with a movie night on the couch with I Want You Back wouldn’t earn major brownie points…but a brownie couldn’t hurt either.
I Want You Back will be available on Prime Video
Friday, February 11