Review: “I Want You Back” Revives a Classic Rom-Com Formula

Talking with Charlie Day, Jenny Slate and the filmmakers on the timeless comedy of bad break-ups

February 11, 2022 7:07 am
I Want You Back stars Charlie Day and Jenny Slate doing karaoke in a scene from their new romantic comedy
Charlie Day and Jenny Slate offer a less refined take on love in "I Want You Back"
Amazon Studios

Prime Video’s I Want You Back is a nice barometer of where the romantic comedy is at in 2022 — still nodding toward When Harry Met Sally as the genre’s modern high point (as one film historian correctly assesses), but moving past the meta commentary and eyerolling that plagued rom-coms in the past decade.

“We love classic romantic comedies,” explains Isaac Aptaker, who co-produced and co-wrote the film with Elizabeth Berger (they also work on Love, Simon and This Is Us). “We like When Harry Met Sally or all the James L. Brooks ones — they’re romantic comedies about real people that you feel you could be friends with.”

Sure, the plot here is conveniently farcical: Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day) are total strangers who work in the same building and eventually meet, bond and scheme after their respective partners dump them. There is a modest amount of PG-13 sex, drugs and alcohol present here, but otherwise the film features the trappings of a classic rom-com: A quick break-up in the beginning that devastates a character (in this case two), a ridiculous plan to get back loved ones, drunken karaoke, a few musical numbers, heightened drama at a picturesque wedding and even a montage. The film isn’t afraid to embrace familiar tropes and simply work as a funny and engaging bit of comfort food.

Oddly, one touchpoint for I Want You Back was actually Cruel Intentions, which even gets name-checked in the singular wink-wink moment of the film. “Our film is manipulations and sexual trickery, but with just normal people,” adds Aptaker. “They’re not super elite teenagers, but it’s a recipe for fun and disaster.”

When the film does rise above the streaming rom-com norm, it’s thanks to a stellar cast, headlined by Slate and Day but also featuring Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo and Gina Rodriguez. Director Jason Orley (Big Time Adolescence — and, spoiler, watch for that movie’s star in a cameo) keeps everything fairly even-keeled, even given the trappings of the genre and the actor involved. 

“Jason is good at grounding performances. He first and foremost is telling a real story about real people with real emotions, and it never tips over their reality,” says Day, also a producer on the film. “And he got the best performance out of me I’ve ever done.”

That said, the best lines here certainly play up to the performers’ edgier work and improv chops (I doubt “I can smell the moon” was in the script, and a certain X-rated lyrical flub during a music sequence by Slate from a mid-film Little Shop of Horrors sequence actually required the blessing of that movie’s composer Alan Menken).

The biggest nod to When Harry Met Sally is that nobody here comes across as a villain, and everybody has relatable flaws. “These characters, Emma and Peter, they’re sad but just being themselves — admittedly, their worst selves,” says Slate, who, like all the cast, repeatedly talks about the film striking a “balance” between funny and relatability.  

In the end, it’s all pretty predictable (albeit funny). But it does kind of bridge a gap between Rob Reiner’s classic Harry/Sally tale, the raunchier/edgier romantic comedies (and bromances) of the aughts and the new, semi-earnest norm that streaming rom-coms have embraced.

And that combination of all those movie realms may best be summed up by co-star Manny Jacinto (The Good Place), who thinks I Want You Back has a real and relatable lesson for people going through a breakup … while offering up a minor spoiler. “It’s ok to spend time alone, to grow and find yourself,” he says. “Also, threesomes aren’t for everyone.”

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