Cultural critic Umberto Eco once wrote, “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” He was referring to Casablanca and how its use of myriad archetypes transcended the film’s aesthetic limitations and improvised production. It’s tempting to extend Eco’s argument to other hyper-formulaic entertainment, the kind that proudly embrace genre tropes, but it turns out that not all clichés are created equal. Take I Want You Back, a trite romantic comedy that hits all the expected notes at just the wrong pitch, creating a dull and lifeless symphony.
Part of the problem lies in the unrealized farcical potential of the film’s high-concept premise. Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) both get dumped by their respective partners on the same day. Devastated by their sudden singlehood, the two meet-ugly-cry in the stairwell of their shared office building and quickly hatch a scheme to break up their exes’ new relationships. This means, practically speaking, that there are six different characters in a self-generated mess, which allows for the possibility of absurd misunderstandings and screwball shenanigans. None of that happens in I Want You Back. In fact, all six characters only share the screen for the climactic ruse reveal, which lands as flatly as possible despite occurring at a riverboat wedding, a location seemingly rife for mishaps.
Love, Simon screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger instead isolate Peter and Emma with the other’s ex for the majority of the film. (It’s unclear if this was due to COVID restrictions, cast scheduling, or just a lack of imagination.) Emma contrives a truly unbelievable reason to volunteer at the middle school where Anne (Gina Rodriguez), Peter’s ex, teaches; she’s there to “help” Anne’s pretentious new drama teacher beau, Logan (Manny Jacinto), with his production of Little Shop Of Horrors. These scenes are mostly tedious and predictable, culminating in Emma effectively catching Logan’s eye and inciting jealousy in Anne. They do, however, provide Slate the opportunity to perform a heartfelt, mildly energizing rendition of “Suddenly, Seymour.”
Meanwhile, Peter signs up to be a client of Emma’s physical-trainer ex Noah (Scott Eastwood) and speedily befriends him during their workout sessions. Though Peter tries to remind him of his feelings for Emma, it turns out that Noah isn’t on the rebound but rather genuinely in love with his new pie-making girlfriend, Ginny (Clark Backo). (The range of professions in I Want You Back are particularly yuppiefied, even for a romantic comedy.) In the film’s most straightforwardly comedic sequence, Peter realizes Noah’s sincere feelings after an evening at a nightclub turns disastrous. Hot tubs, MDMA, and a Pete Davidson cameo are involved.
With its subplots and various ploys to separate its cast, I Want You Back plays like a two-hour sitcom episode—an awkward narrative structure that might go down smoother if the situations were more amusing or the jokes funnier. Aptaker and Berger adopt a frustratingly grounded, realistic approach to the story, promising hijinks and then tackling the contrivances with all the levelheaded practicality of a stringent middle manager.
The main pairing might be the film’s biggest liability, though. Slate and Day have demonstrated over the past decade-plus that they possess unique individual comic voices. (Day, especially, has crafted a hall-of-fame sitcom character in Charlie on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.) Unfortunately, the two have little romantic chemistry together, which admittedly doesn’t really matter that much since they spend much of the movie apart. They convince as buddies who get drunk at karaoke together, but when it comes time for them to suddenly realize their feelings for each other almost an hour behind the audience, they can’t quite sell the newfound ardor.
The one “twist” to standard rom-com formula is that the film has no villains. Every character’s reason for splitting up or reconciling or proposing marriage is understandable. Neither Anne nor Noah are characterized as jerks for dumping our beloved protagonists; they just want different things. And their new partners are decent if bland people, too, with only Jacinto ever threatening to come across as truly obnoxious, thanks to his pompousness and sexual presumptuousness. Moreover, Peter and Emma’s romantic scheme mostly helps them realize their own professional ambitions. For Peter, that means leaving his job at a profit-hungry elder care company to open an independent, compassionate retirement home. For Emma, it’s becoming a guidance counselor, spurred by a brief bond with a troubled tween. The only real bad guys here are personal insecurity and lack of motivation.
This focus on internal struggle wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world if all the stuff around it didn’t feel so rote. Everything from Peter and Emma’s inane backstories to their sweaty attempts to win back partners who were clearly not right for them in the first place mark this as a case of a creative team going through the motions. The ending hinges on a callback so obvious and manufactured that it provokes eye rolls, even as it slightly subverts expectations. In I Want You Back, the clichés are still talking among themselves. Only this time, they’re slowly turning on each other.