Despite funny leads, rom-com ‘I Want You Back’ lacks focus

Photo of a still from I Want You Back
Amazon Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

For many viewers, a romantic comedy starring Jenny Slate and Charlie Day sounds like a match made in comedy heaven — take two hilarious actors with an assortment of ridiculous roles under their belts, have them play a couple of charmingly awkward millennials navigating the challenges of modern-day love, and there’s a recipe for a delightful, feel-good time. The product of this idea, Amazon Studios’ “I Want You Back,” is less idyllic. 

Although Slate and Day give outstanding performances, they are forced into a largely uninspired rom-com plot that doesn’t devote enough time to showing the two when they’re at their best — when they’re together. 

The premise of the film is largely explained by its name; Emma (Slate) and Peter (Day) are dumped by their significant others on the same day. Emma’s ex-boyfriend Noah (Scott Eastwood) is frustrated by Emma’s lack of responsibility and direction, while Peter’s ex Anne (Gina Rodriguez) feels that her relationship is holding her back from living the artistically ambitious life she wants. After a chance teary encounter in the stairwell of their shared office, Emma and Peter become friends and plot to help each other get their exes back by breaking up their new relationships.

Comedy veterans Slate and Day bring their impeccable acting and timing to the table, achieving something often missing in romantic comedies — effective joke delivery that doesn’t come off as cringey or artificial. However, “I Want You Back” consistently feels scripted, and it’s hard to watch the film for long without remembering that one is consuming a manufactured story. Nothing about the absurd plot, unlikely coincidences and mishaps feel natural. 

Yet, there are some moments that effectively absorb the audience into the world of the film: when Slate and Day share the screen. Whether they’re comforting each other’s heartbreak, discussing their aspirations, or drunkenly singing unhinged karaoke, their relationship feels incredibly genuine. 

Emma and Peter’s friendship is lots of fun to watch blossom. The film gives its leads an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to act in more emotional, dramatic roles than what viewers may be familiar with seeing in “Parks and Recreation” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” proving that their talents for performing include, but are not limited to comedy. 

Despite Slate and Day’s on-screen chemistry, the development in their relationship from platonic to romantic doesn’t feel particularly satisfying or necessary. Although the audience certainly hopes that Emma and Peter find happiness in the end — and knows that they will likely get together — the absence of romantic spark underwhelms their union.

Unfortunately, there is little else to like in the film besides Slate and Day’s performances. None of the other characters are particularly memorable, and considering how much time Emma and Peter spend with them, one just can’t help but wish they were more interesting. The plot itself also seems silly and contrived, dragging on for far too long and eventually coming off as nothing more than filler before the inevitable happy ending.

It is hard not to feel as though the film could be much improved. The humor is there, but there isn’t much else exciting outside of Emma and Peter’s friendship. The fluff of a romantic comedy invites shenanigans but “I Want You Back” stands to benefit from pruning. 

Emma and Peter begin but eventually deviate from being “sadness sisters,” a missed opportunity for gradual intimacy, mutual growth and then romance lost in the plot’s unnecessary complexity. The humor lands at its best when it comes from its two funny, likable main characters rather than from their individual misadventures.

Although the film’s stellar leads may cause viewers to consider the missed potential, “I Want You Back” has its strengths. The typical rom-com expectations are satisfied by a particularly funny lead couple, as the film lingers in the superficial and buckles under any more pressure.

Joy Diamond covers film. Contact her at [email protected].