I Want You Back has a plot right out of a sitcom. Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are dumped by their respective lovers. The two just so happen to work at the same office building where they bond over their breakups. Following some Shang-Chi-styled karaoke, the two decide to work together in repairing their relationships. The problem is that both of their exes have since moved on. So, Peter will befriend Emma’s fitness-obsessed ex Noah (Scott Eastwood), who is now dating a baker named Ginny (Clark Backo). Peter’s ex Anne (Gina Rodriguez) is with a drama teacher named Logan (Manny Jacinto), who Emma will seduce.
While this setup is tailormade for twenty-two minutes, does it work on a cinematic scale? With Day and Slate in the lead rules, for the most part. Even with its immensely likable stars, I Want You Back would’ve benefitted from being fifteen minutes shorter. Still, the leads carry the runtime to the finish line with enough laughs along the way. Day and Slate’s presence also helps us to overlook the fact that these people are kind of psychotic. At the very least, they’re alcoholics with a drink in their hands every other scene.
With the wrong actors in the roles, it’d be hard to root for Peter and Emma in their pursuit of breaking up two couples. Of course, Day has a knack for playing lovable bastards, as seen in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Emma, honestly, isn’t even the most unhinged character in Slate’s filmography, which includes Mona-Lisa Saperstein and Lego Harley Quinn. As questionable as their actions are, Day and Emma manage to make us care about these characters. They have natural comedic and romantic chemistry, doing most of the heavy lifting to the surprisingly heartwarming ending.
The supporting cast, however, is hit and miss. Rodriguez is a standout as Anne, who could’ve come off as a stuck-up ex who’s never satisfied. She brings nuances to the character, though, and makes us sympathize with her. It also doesn’t hurt that Rodriguez is a seasoned comedic actress. The same can’t be said about Eastwood and Backo, who mainly come from dramatic backgrounds. Their characters aren’t especially funny, but maybe they could’ve been with a pair like John Cena and Issa Rae. Likewise, Russell Brand might’ve been more well-suited to play an oblivious swinger like Logan. As hilarious as Jacinto was on The Good Place, he plays Logan a bit too straightforward here.
To the cast’s credit, the script is a mixed bag. For every laugh-out-loud moment, there’s another that feels like a missed opportunity. A scene involving a balcony, a hot tub, and an SNL star is one example. The more dramatic moments can be rushed as well. Of course, there’s a scene where one of the leads realizes that they’ve been in love with the other lead all along. The transition to this integral moment is rather abrupt, though. With some recasting and rewrites, I Want You Back could’ve ranked among the better rom-coms of recent years. As is, the leads do elevate the material from an okay rom-com to a pretty solid one. Also, if you didn’t want a Little Shop of Horrors remake with Slate as Audrey, you will after this film.