Charlie Day and Jenny Slate are two wildly talented and hilarious actors. They both have unique comedic voices and styles, and when they are at their best, they are the kinds of performers who can convince you that you might actually suffocate from laughing so hard. They are always a plus to any production in which they take part, and always delightful when they are on screen.
This continues to hold true in director Jason Orley’s I Want You Back, albeit with a hitch. Both Day and Slate are both equally great in the film, and they continue to prove themselves great comedic leads – but it’s also hard not to notice that the film never takes full advantage of its stars phenomenal skills. It’s funny, but more “chuckle” funny than “can’t catch my breath” funny, and while it never feels trite or manipulative as a romance, it is overloaded with clichés and well-worn plotting that prevents it from ever feeling distinctive or particularly engaging. You want it to be more because of the talent involved, but it falls short of expectations.
A kind of romantic take on the classic Strangers On A Train premise, I Want You Back is written by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, and it begins finding Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day) on some of the worst days of their respective lives. While neither of them have much to cling on to in their lives, they do have what they perceive as solid relationships… but then the rug gets pulled out from under them. Noah (Scott Eastwood), a personal trailer, breaks up with Emma because she doesn’t have any goals or direction for her life, and Anne (Gina Rodriguez), a schoolteacher, does the same to Peter because she wants more excitement in her life and believes that he has stalled out.
Emma and Peter don’t actually know each other, but they work in the same building – the former as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, the latter as a suit working at a nursing home conglomerate – and they meet because they discover each other crying in the stairwell. They commiserate over their heartbreak, and are horrified to discover that their partners have moved on… which is what gets their brain gears turning in search for a solution to their pain.
The answer they come up with is to try and sabotage their exes’ new relationships – the idea being that they can try and get their romantic interests to back pedal. For her part, Emma tries to seduce Logan (Manny Jacinto), Anne’s new boyfriend and the drama teacher at the local elementary school. Meanwhile, Peter tries to befriend Noah by joining his gym and works to steer him away from Ginny (Clark Backo), a young woman he’s dating who owns a local bakery.
I Want You Back is a generic romantic comedy that never tries to be anything different.
It’s most definitely not my job as a critic to spoil movies, but I can guarantee that nine out of ten people could guess exactly how I Want You Back plays out beat for beat – that tenth individual presumably being somebody who has never watched a single romantic comedy before. As lies escalate, situations become more heightened, but emotional depths are also uncovered and enhanced, and before long unexpected feelings start to develop that throw a wrench in the whole plot. There isn’t any kind of edge (it might have an R-rating, but it feels PG-13) or any kind of special angle; it all plays out exactly as expected.
The only actual surprises it has are a couple of fun cameos, but even those are along the lines of “Oh, I didn’t know they were in this movie” instead of “Whoa, I didn’t expect them to show up” or “Wow, that’s a really fun character for them to play.” At the same time, they’re appearances that one can appreciate because at least it’s a diversion from the hyper-generic.
Charlie Day and Jenny Slate make a fun pair, but the material doesn’t let them do their best work.
The blandness of I Want You Back puts Charlie Day and Jenny Slate in an awkward position, as while they have great chemistry together and both put in solid performances, there is a backlash that comes with the expectations instilled by their presences in the film. If utilized properly, a pair of exceptionally gifted leads have the capacity to elevate any material, and Day and Slate are actors who have that potential, but it never actually happens in the movie.
There are certainly some funny moments and bright spots – like Slate belting out a surprisingly lovely rendition of “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop Of Horrors during a play rehearsal but mostly it never feels like the leads were given the freedom to add their own comedic flavors to what’s on the page – resulting in eye rolling gags like Peter sneaking around Noah’s room and getting trapped in a hiding spot while Noah and Ginny have sex. You keep wanting the stars to elevate the material by doing what they do best, but everything about the movie just feels safe and simple.
As far as Valentine’s Day viewing options go, couples cuddling up this weekend could easily do a lot worse, but anyone going into the movie with any extra levels of expectation based on the talent involved is heading toward disappointment. It’s a cute diversion in its best moments, and wholly inoffensive, but also aggravating when it settles for the easiest joke or the most basic gag available. You’ll groan when the excessively cheesy ending you imagined in your head in the second act actually becomes a reality right before the credits roll, but its forgettable-ness does a lot to tamper any real frustration.