Producers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger, John Rickard and Peter Safran Director: Jason Orley Screenplay: Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger Cast: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Luke David Blumm, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz and Isabel May Distributor: Amazon Studios
Jason Orley enjoyed a modest success with his first feature as a director “Big Time Adolescence,” in 2019. Working from his own script, he fashioned a teen comedy-drama that made shrewd use of Pete Davidson’s limited talents. His sophomore effort is a step up for him in terms of casting and budget. In quality terms, however, “I Want You Back” represents a decline.
Perhaps that’s because the screenplay isn’t his own: it comes from Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who wrote “Love, Simon” and are major players on TV’s “This Is Us.” And it’s a contrived, if intermittently amusing, piece of work, saddled with leads who are much less engaging than they seem to think.
As the movie starts, Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are both abruptly dumped, Peter at a big birthday party for the nephew of Anne (Gina Rodriguez), his girlfriend of five years, and Emma at lunch by her hunky trainer boyfriend Noah (Scott Eastwood). Both make embarrassing scenes, of course, and when they get back to work can hardly contain themselves when they think about the fact that their exes have taken up with somebody else, Anne with Logan (Manny Jacinto), the theatre guy at the middle school where she teaches English, and Noah with Ginny (Clark Backo), a baker of healthy pies.
So the two go out into the stairwell to bawl—they work in the same building, of course—and meet cute there. Before long they’re hanging out together, commiserating, and decide they can help one another get their exes back. Anne will pose as a volunteer at Anne’s school and seduce Logan, while Peter will become one of Noah’s clients, befriend him and encourage him to break up with Ginny and go back to Emma.
Most of what follows is pretty flat stuff, largely because neither Day nor Slate prove especially ingratiating, while the script is mostly flat, as is Orley’s direction.
There are a few highlights, however. Though Eastwood, Rodriguez and Backo don’t bring much to the party besides their good looks, Jacinto gets some genuine laughs as the pretentious drama director, and his production of “Little Shop of Horrors” (the musical, naturally) is a high spot, especially when he enlists Emma to take over the part of Audrey, which she claims to have played before, in rehearsals. There’s also a sweet subplot about her befriending a troubled kid (Luke David Blumm) who’s been assigned to work as a stagehand. The majority of the Emma-Anne-Logan triangle material, however, is mediocre.
The same can be said of most of the Peter-Noah plot thread, and its supposedly big set-piece—a guys’ night out at a raucous club that turns into a “Hangover”-like party at the apartment of some girls they meet there—is partially rescued only by a cameo by Pete Davidson as the zonked-out ex-boyfriend of one of the clubbers, who arrives with a supply of drugs. He’s just doing his usual shtick, but since it’s limited to a virtual cameo, it’s not long enough to get grating.
The general trajectory of “I Want You Back” is predictable—things wind up pretty much as you’d expect insofar as Emma and Peter are concerned. But there are a few twists that may come as a bit of a surprise—though not much.
The movie is reasonably well-made from a technical perspective. Michael Perry’s production design is more than adequate, and cinematographer Brian Burgoyne does a decent job with the Georgia (of course) locations; composer Siddhartha Khosla contributes a comfortably generic score. At nearly two hours it’s overlong, but the problem rests more with Orley’s flaccid pacing of scenes than Jonathan Schwartz’s editing.
This is a relatively painless romantic comedy for Valentine’s Day, but not one you’ll want back after it’s over.