I WANT YOU BACK– 2 STARS
LESSON #1: MISERY LOVES COMPANY– Somewhere far down the list of quality experiences and emotions one can share with a total stranger is sobbing together. Full, ugly cries are messy, uncomfortable, and usually kept private. Yet, there’s an odd level of united support when people thrust in the same emotional state can help each other dry their tear ducts and carry on. I Want You Back takes a sizable risk to build a rom-com “meet cute” out of this kind of “misery loves company” moment.
In this Amazon Prime movie, Charlie Day’s Peter and Jenny Slate’s Emma have recently been dumped by their respective significant others. The emotional Peter wanted too much next-step adulting from Anne (Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin fame) while the complacent Emma didn’t have enough of that for Noah (softened ass kicker Scott Eastwood). While retreating from their monotonous office jobs verklempt to the building stairwell a floor apart, their echoing blubbers catch each other’s startled attention.
Their first instincts are to try and embarrassingly compose themselves for the stranger in their midst. Peter and Emma exchange cordialities of trying to help fix a possibly unnoticed bit of the other’s disheveled appearance. By leading with a disarming dose of empathy, introductions follow and their shared circumstances come to light. Talk about a hell of a first impression between two people!
The frankness of that whole exchange in I Want You Back and how two comedy pros like Charlie Day and Jenny Slate play it really grabs you. The scene stirs a feeling that something uncommon and meaningful may spring forth from the usual romantic comedy trappings. Only the first half of those two hopes come to fruition in the movie, and the decline starts soon after this stellar start from director Jason Orley in his sophomore feature.
LESSON #2: FIND YOURSELF A “SADNESS SISTER”— What began in the stairwell at work turns into sloppy drinks and karaoke after, where the booze loosens lips. While baring more of their broken and sorry souls, Emma and Peter set up a “sadness sister” support system. They make a pact to help deflect and shield each other from their low feelings and triggers. The guzzled alcohol also inebriates better judgment because a bigger, grander plan is hatched next.
The two lonely sad sacks also agree to work together to break up their exes from their new squeezes. Peter seeks to become friends with Noah enough to get him to make a club-hopping stag mistake of chasing skirts. Meanwhile, Emma tries to flirt and steal away Annie’s new exotic drama teacher boyfriend Logan (Manny Jacinto of The Good Place). In an R-rated comedy, the hijinks get hairy in a hurry.
Charlie Day and Jenny Slate are both very calibrated when it comes to self-deprecating humor. He has his plucky fluster and she has her Debbie Downer magnetism and their mutual resumes before this movie are full of that specialty. When they’re together, the two best actors and characters are bouncing emotions off each other. Their comedic cadences click for their future foregone conclusion of “will they” or “won’t they.”
We can tell a mile away that the amount of lies Peter and Emma rack up to their desired partners (and each other) will bring it all crashing down for apologies and meager redemption. Their combined spirit shrinks when the material written by the Love, Simon team of Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger degrades into the sabotage angles that send them to different places. The breakup pursuits of I Want You Back do not carry the same charm as the happenstance that got it all started.
It’s not that the sideshow antics are overly mean-spirited from characters we’re set to like. They are just not as interesting or funny, wasting too much of Scott Eastwood’s handsomeness and Gina Rodriguez’s untapped hilarity. The dead-end chases languish a little in their length and their failure to perk up laughs or extra attraction. It’s odd to say it, but everyone’s better when they’re at their lowest back in that stairwell “meet cry.” Wallowing weirdly beats winning.