Cast, producers of ‘I Want You Back’ talk shaking rom-com cliche

Scene from the movie "I Want You Back"
Amazon Studios/Courtesy

Related Posts

Fate doesn’t always have to make a show of itself. Sometimes, what makes the most sense simply falls into place.

For the cast of Amazon Prime’s “I Want You Back,” a new rom-com that seems to reject any notion of fated love, the sentiment rings true. Most of the cast hadn’t met before the day of the shoot and others only in passing; yet, once the cameras began to roll under the guidance of director Jason Orley, the stars (of both the heavens and Hollywood) truly aligned.

 “It was like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna stay out of everybody’s way,’ ” Orley said in a press conference with The Daily Californian. He recalled a particular scene on the first day of shooting; camera in hand, Scott Eastwood’s character had to coax Charlie Day out of his shirt, ready to capture the “before” photos as his new personal trainer. Instantly, the pair’s comedic chemistry was apparent, and Orley thought to himself, “This is not gonna be an issue.”

“It was just like a big ‘yes,’ ” said Jenny Slate, one of the film’s leads. “It was kind of like finding out, for anyone that went to camp, that you got a really good bunk.” 

The same cannot be said about the large cast of characters populating the movie’s plot. Breaking the walls established by rom-coms of time’s past, “I Want You Back” challenges the tried and true “Will they?” or “Won’t they?” with a mystifying “Should they? Should they really?” 

After being dumped by their respective partners on the same weekend, the movie follows Emma (Slate) and Peter (Day) as they meet by chance, teary-eyed and brokenhearted. This unexpected link leads to a pact to ruin their ex-partners’ (Eastwood and Gina Rodriguez) new relationships (with Clark Backo and Manny Jacinto) have found themselves in, with the hopes of weaseling their way back in. 

The film has a distinct lack of protagonists or antagonists; there’s no coquettish Elle Woods and her snobby Harvard ex. Even among the impromptu “Little Shop of Horrors” renditions and second-story jumps into a jacuzzi, the characters remain grounded and whole, creating a play-by-play of wacky events rather than a straightforward hero’s journey. By the end, the audience finds themselves rooting for not only Emma, but also her ex and his new fiance.

“What if you took a movie like ‘Cruel Intentions,’ but the people doing the manipulation and the sexual trickery were just normal people — not the super elite teenagers — but just regular people you could be friends with?” screenwriter Isaac Aptaker said of the storyline’s conception. “That seems like a recipe for fun and disaster.”

This balance of hijinks and sincerity would not have been possible without having humor as the “guiding light,” as described by other screenwriter Elizabeth Berger. No shying away from the latter half of “rom-com” was afforded for even a second.

“It was just a lot of time being like, ‘What feels silly to us? And what makes us laugh? And how do we assemble the funniest group of people in the world to tell this story?’ ” Berger said. “We kinda went from there and lucked into the greatest group in the world.”

Even so, cast member Backo felt that the true heart of the film was in the relatable grief blanketed under the jokes. Playing a sort of post-relationship-mortem “other woman,” she never imagined a role like that to exist unvilified. But “I Want You Back” ignores cliches, instead focusing on real people and their day-to-day lives. The plot is intentionally laughable and the scenarios pointedly absurd, but the feelings conjured by each character stem from a genuine place — even if the actors wouldn’t react the exact same way as their on-screen counterparts. 

“It really is the balance of understanding that comedy comes from intense vulnerability and intense insecurity,” Backo said. “It’s just never as satisfying of a laugh if it doesn’t come from something that’s real and that we can all relate to and that hurts.”

“I Want You Back” is a silly, not so lovey-dovey delight of a rom-com. Subversive and ridiculous, it isn’t a chocolate lava cake for two, or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s with a single spoon. It’s a handful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch pulled straight from the box — sweet, punchy and vaguely comforting in a familiar sort of way. 

In the wise words of Jacinto, “Roses are red, violets are blue. If you don’t see this movie, it sucks for you.”

Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].