Many mainstream romantic comedies are so predictable a robot could write them. Some unlucky-in-love woman cannot find a husband (despite looking like a supermodel and having a glamorous job), so a condescending guy helps her become more appealing in order to attract Mr. Right. Eventually, it turns out the condescending guy was Mr. Right all along, and the woman is blessedly saved from the ninth circle of Female Hell: spinsterhood. Katy Perry plays over the credits.
For an antidote to this formula, look no further than “I Want You Back,” where the characters and the world they inhabit are both refreshingly mundane, and the film is all the funnier for it.
“I Want You Back” sports a cast and crew destined for comedic success: Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (“Love, Simon”) are no strangers to the subversive rom-com, and capable directing and editing by Jason Orley (“Big Time Adolescence”) and Jonathan Schwartz (“Stuber”), respectively, set leads Jenny Slate and Charlie Day up for maximum hilarity. The film ultimately feels a bit underdeveloped, but this seems a small price to pay for a romantic comedy with zero misogyny and relatively realistic characters.
“I Want You Back” opens with two breakups. Noah (Scott Eastwood) dumps Emma (Slate) because she has no career aspirations and — more crucially — he has fallen in love with a pie shop owner named Ginny (Clark Backo, “Letterkenny”). Anne (Gina Rodriguez) ends a six-year relationship with Peter (Charlie Day) because she, an aspiring jet-setter, feels stifled by their monotonous life together.
Emma and Peter meet, crying, in the stairwell of their shared office building and bond over mutual heartbreak, referring to each other as “sadness sisters.” After learning that their exes have promptly moved on, the jilted lovers get to scheming.
Peter plots to befriend Noah and convince him to leave Ginny, while Emma aims to seduce Anne’s new beau Logan (Manny Jacinto, “Nine Perfect Strangers”) into cheating on her. Our devious duo hopes that, once they implode their exes’ relationships, their beloveds will come crawling back. It’s manipulative at best, but Slate and Day are so winning — and Eastwood and Rodriguez so dreamy — that their lunacy is more delightful than disturbing.
“Look at us! This is like ‘Cruel Intentions,’ only sexier,” Peter announces as they solidify their strategy. Emma immediately points out that no, it is not. (There is a same-sex kiss later on, though.)
As is their rom-com burden, Emma and Peter get mixed up in a harebrained scheme that turns their friendship into something more, but that’s pretty much where the genre conventions end. For one, these characters could not have less glamorous backstories. After dropping out of college to deal with her father’s death, Emma has surrendered herself to inertia. She works a passionless job and lives with two college students (the delightful Dylan Gelula and Mason Gooding). Peter wanted to revolutionize the elder-care industry after growing up with his grandparents; instead, he finds himself in a senior position at a soulless care-home corporation.
For another, these people aren’t exactly soulmates, nor are they in an exhausting will-they-won’t-they dynamic. Rather, as an airplane oxygen mask metaphor in the script suggests, they help each other learn to take care of themselves before trying to fix anybody else.
It’s a novel dynamic in a genre often hamstrung by gender inequity. Peter is no condescending guy, and Emma is no hapless heroine. They work together, but their journeys are separate and equally important. Because he’s befriending Noah, for instance, Peter hits the gym and starts to enjoy challenging himself through exercise. Emma spends much of her time helping Logan put on a middle-school production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” and as a result befriends a precocious kid (an excellent Luke David Blumm) who helps her find her purpose.
(Her stint as a stagehand also results in one of the film’s most hilarious, heartfelt scenes, in which Emma performs the love song “Suddenly Seymour” with a tween performer played by the unforgettable Manny Magnus.)
But while Peter and Emma get lots of depth, a few characters are stuck in 2-D. Ginny is a cipher, a silent beacon of perfection who mainly exists to make Emma feel inferior. Noah gets some funny lines (he memorably misstates the old axiom “Get back on the horse” as “Get back on the whores”), but he, too, is mostly there to be hot and flawless. Anne and Logan are more fleshed out, probably because Rodriguez and Jacinto have stronger comedic backgrounds, though both are playing to type.
The romance also suffers because the plot is so focused on Emma and Peter as individuals. You get the sense that these people could be good together, emotionally, but there are almost no moments — save one clichéd dressing room scene — of real desire. Like “Love, Simon,” “I Want You Back,” is almost entirely sexless, a choice that feels far less apropos in a film where the lead characters are not teenagers.
In fact, sexiness and funniness have an inverse relationship here, as demonstrated by Noah and Ginny. It’s a shame, because Slate can certainly pull off both, as she did in the indie hit “Obvious Child,” and it would be nice to see Day, who’s constantly cast as a quirky side character, get to try.
Still, despite its imperfections, “I Want You Back” is a very easy movie to like, if not to fall madly, passionately in love with. It’s a rom-com where pop hits are replaced by a drunken rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and a blood-soaked performance of “Somewhere That’s Green.” The jobs are humdrum and the people are normal, yet even after Emma and Peter’s deceitful deeds are done, they still get a happy-ish ending.
“I Want You Back” premieres Friday on Amazon Prime Video.