Those asking whither the romantic comedy these days must be agnostic to streaming, where new grist for the mill of moderately amusing manipulation is manufactured at least once a week.
During the holiday season on Netflix, the romcom practically has its own advent calendar. And while movies like Set It Up, The Half of It and Love Hard aren’t world-beaters, well … at least most of them aren’t Desperados.
What culture wonks are really asking is why this once-bankable genre dried up at the multiplex. It’s a legitimate question given a decade-long deficit of hits (save for Silver Linings Playbook, Trainwreck and Crazy Rich Asians). Part of the diagnosis is that too many romantic comedies pointlessly pad themselves out toward two hours — preloaded with scenes during which you could safely retrieve, fold and put away laundry without ever pausing and still keep up with every last bit of narrative and nuance. Such is the folly of I Want You Back, a painfully protracted 117-minute piffle of a Valentine’s Day ploy now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
At 97 minutes, the premise might have held promise: Realizing they’ve both been recently dumped while commiserating in their work complex, Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) hatch a scheme to win back their respective exes, Anne (Gina Rodriguez) and Noah (Scott Eastwood). Emma intends to seduce Anne’s new boyfriend, Logan (Manny Jacinto) while Peter will befriend Noah and incrementally infer that he should boot new girl Ginny (Clark Backo).
This is essentially the plot that Matthew Broderick and Meg Ryan followed 25 years ago in Addicted to Love, with more room to roam. Certainly, there are a cadre of Netflix films with a similar storyline. The difference here, and ostensible appeal, is Day and Slate as everyday leads — hardly unattractive but not the pre-sculpted pretty people that often populate such films. It also leans heavily into their respective shticks of chipmunkish chatterbox and sardonic gal-pal.
Day and Slate are certainly paired well, and their repartee sparks a smattering of laughs. The fatal flaw in Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s screenplay is a prioritization of contrivance over conversation. I Want You Back gets unbearably and unbelievably bogged down in boring shenanigans, most of them weirdly preoccupied with sex-adjacent jokes concerning underage characters. It’s as if When Harry Met Sally… lapsed into American Pie material, added a sluggish additional act, and threw in an SNL cameo that tries to do for this film what Keanu Reeves’s walk-on part did for Always Be My Maybe with laughably limp results.
Aptaker and Berger flirt with a compelling notion of guilt that Peter, a reasonably well-off white dude, gets most of what he wants from this conspiracy while Emma’s purpose-seeking woman gets left in the dust. Plus, all Peter has to do is become someone’s friend where Emma presumes she must sexually proffer herself. But even those complexities are abandoned by an aggressive adherence to formula without function. And really, that’s the problem here. Complaining about predictability in a romantic comedy is like grousing that Pizza Hut won’t sell you filet mignon. The issue here is a paucity of practical discussions or personality revelations alongside prerequisite needle-drops, teary confrontations and messy reconciliations.
As Day and Slate do here, Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson essentially embrace their usual personas in Marry Me, also released this past weekend (in theaters and also streaming). But that film at least finds a naturalistic, mature embrace of honesty as an important virtue in love, a factor in mutual attraction, and a pivot for the third act rather than duplicitous mischief. Hell, even something as plainly sketched out from the first second as Love Hard introduces cultural expectations as a refreshing wrinkle. With so many better romcom options awaiting a random spin of the streaming wheel, it’s much too late for you to take a second look at I Want You Back.