Review: Familiar rom-com ‘I Want You Back’ has its pleasures

A man and a woman sit on a banquette, drinking and holding microphones.
Charlie Day and Jenny Slate star as newly dumped 30-somethings scheming to get their exes back by hook or by crook in “I Want You Back.”
(Amazon Studios)

If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood romantic comedy, you know from the first few minutes of “I Want You Back” where it’s going. In fact, you know from the trailer, perhaps even from the poster. Fortunately, its appealing leads manage to make getting there worth the trip.

Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day) are suddenly dumped by Noah (Scott Eastwood) and Anne (Gina Rodriguez), respectively. The crushed dumpees meet-cute in their misery and hatch a plot to go undercover to torpedo each other’s exes’ new relationships (Anne’s seeing theater artiste Logan and Noah’s with pastry queen Ginny) — sort of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” meets “Strangers on a Train.”

Yep, it’s the standard-issue deception-based scheme to shoehorn desperate people back into true love. Both Emma and Peter are stuck in unsatisfactory career situations that were “supposed to be temporary”; you can smell the catharses coming. On the plus side, the exes aren’t monsters. Anne reads as searching and Noah has his reasons for wanting out.


As the absurd bits pile up, the movie catches something of a rhythm. Its comic timing is good and the dialogue occasionally funny. When Emma and Peter are in the bargaining stage of their mourning, she reasons, “Dying alone is not all that bad. Why do you want someone watching you when you die?”

The always-watchable Slate delivers moments of crumby charm, as when she wakes next to a ravaged box of cereal and nails the delivery: “You again?” She makes us believe that, in Emma’s quest to trick Logan into thinking she’s a theater person, she would Google “fancy theater books.” More than her finely honed comic skills, however, it’s Slate’s ability to convey shades of disappointment that elevates her performance above the genre norm. Especially when receiving painful news late in the film, we feel her biting down on her fate without any grand gestures.

The film also enjoys playing Day’s whole … nebbishy … thing against Eastwood’s strapping studliness: “He’s a classically handsome guy, but I think I offer a lot,” says Peter in his cartoon-weasel voice, rationalizing how he can steal Noah’s girlfriend on Emma’s behalf. “In college, girls were like, ‘You’re such a good friend.’ ” To which Emma responds, “Oh, darn it.”

Other characters have their moments, especially Manny Jacinto‘s arty Logan who, while directing a middle-school mounting of “Little Shop of Horrors,” commands a child adjusting stage lights to “think ‘Last Tango in Paris.’” It’s a pleasure to see Jacinto out of his dumb-as-a-box-of-hammers “The Good Place” persona, sliding instead into the oiliness of a howlingly pretentious object of desire.

Eastwood manages to make Noah sympathetic. He’s all about fitness and nutrition but, mercifully, isn’t shallow or narcissistic. And his arc, while sudden-feeling, lands satisfyingly. Anne feels less explored, however, and one can’t help but feel her big comic scene (in an awkward situation with Logan and Emma that would be a spoiler to describe further) doesn’t quite hit the right notes.

As expected for rom-com terrain, the script doesn’t drill down too deeply. Fittingly, Peter offers to discredit Ginny by using Photoshop to “make it look like she does fracking” — then Peter and Emma both confess they don’t know what fracking is. The gag is for effect, not commentary.


Yes, it all touches down exactly where you think it will. But despite “I Want You Back’s” heaping helping of the usual rom-com balderdash, both Slate and Day provide enough underdog charisma to make us root for their characters, if not their wrongheaded quests.

'I Want You Back'

Rated: R for language, sexual material, some drug use and partial nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: Available Feb. 11 on Amazon Prime Video