I Want You Back is the new breezy, self-aware new romantic comedy from Jason Orley (Big Time Adolescence). The film takes a light romcom approach to the Dangerous Liaisons or, as our characters comment, the Cruel Intentions formula. Recent dumpees Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) meet by happenstance and strike up a friendship out of shared heartbreak. Both of their exes have moved on to new partners. Angry Instagram stalking, copious alcohol, and late night karaoke lead to the hatching of a plan: an alliance to help sabotage each other’s ex’s new relationships.
The lead foursome is played by Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Gina Rodriguez, and Scott Eastwood. It cannot escape notice that one of these things is not like the others. We have the lead of the longest running sitcom in American television history (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), an SNL alumna with a storied track record in comedy (including Parks and Recreation), a Golden Globe winning actress from a breezy American telenovela (Jane the Virgin), and an actor perhaps most associated with bland VOD action movies. Looking deeper down the cast list we see many more accomplished comedic performers including Manny Jacinto (Jason on The Good Place), Canadian sitcom star Clark Backo (Letterkenny), and small roles for the likes of Dylan Gelula (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Shithouse) and Pete Davidson (The King of Staten Island).
It turns out that the casting of Scott Eastwood, an enormous outlier choice if ever there was one, is the key to much of I Want You Back’s appeal. Eastwood, simultaneously playing to type and subverting his family lineage, plays Noah, a fitness obsessed personal trainer with a puppy dog sweet personality and palpable enthusiasm for life. Eastwood doesn’t allow the character to fall all the way into the realm of the handsome, affable simpleton that Chris Hemsworth has conquered. He’s charming and human, but just a hair dopey. Essentially, he’s a classic sitcom character. I was genuinely stunned by Eastwood’s warmth and his comic timing in the role including a silly gag about an equine malapropism sold so well it had me in stitches. More of this from him in the future, please and thank you.
Of course, we know what our lead characters do not immediately realize: Day and Slate simply work together. They have the sort of “immediate old friends” chemistry that often makes for the most charming romantic comedies. They fall quickly into the mode of “Sadness Sisters” bonding over the shared glee of destroying their exes’ new flames while taking in retro screenings of Con Air. Invariably, their schemes lead to comedic hijinks. Peter becomes real friends with Emma’s ex, Noah, when he hires Noah as a personal trainer in an effort to scout out his love life. Emma is conscripted into assisting in the rendering of a middle school rendition of Little Shop of Horrors as she tries to bond with Peter’s ex’s new fling (a very funny Manny Jacinto). At each moment when the film threatens to go off course into something just a bit too goofy, Orley manages to steer the ship back to the grounded and human.
The human gear of it all is what makes work. Day and Slate, as gifted as they are comedically, also have some real dramatic chops. Despite the inevitability of it all, there are some smart, measured story-telling choices. It’s a difficult balance to tell this story where you’re left not only rooting for the success and happiness of our leads, but also of the exes. Orley is a warm, open storyteller who I suspect will continue to improve.
All told, this makes for a pleasantly predictable and charming entry in the post-Apatow canon of romantic comedies. The language is salty and the jokes are often quite funny. We get the predictable “first time trying drugs!” sequence. It even runs a hair too long at the end, but there are certainly worse fates than spending a few extra minutes with these talented comic performers.
I Want You Back will be available on Amazon’s Prime Video on February 11, 2022.