When in a romantic relationship, it’s never a good time to break up, nor to be the one getting dumped. The hilarious cold open of director Jason Orley’s rom-com “I Want You Back” begins with much promise, highlighting the indignities of the separate but equally humiliating fracturing of our two protagonists’ long-term loves. And while the premise of these two broken-hearted strangers finding each other and hatching a foolhardy scheme to win back their exes is quick to ramp up, the midsection plateaus when it should percolate with the pair’s plan taking form, or rather not quite manifesting correctly. Still, despite some pacing issues and predictable plotlines, the film keeps us wholeheartedly engaged with well-drawn, well-performed characters, grounded shenanigans and sweet, sentimental commentary on heartache.
Thirtysomethings Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day) both thought they were headed towards the next big step with their respective partners, physical trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood) and teacher Anne (Gina Rodriguez). But their dreams of a happy marriage and a home in the suburbs filled with kids are dashed on the same weekend when their lovers blindside them, effectively kissing them off for other people. Shocked and saddened, the two shuffle on with their stagnant lives, Emma as a receptionist at an orthodontic clinic and Peter as a corporate cog in the wheel of a shady retirement conglomerate. However, things change once the pair unwittingly meet-cute in their shared building’s stairwell while crying over their respective lost loves.
Since Emma and Peter are scared to be alone at such a late stage, the two conspire to sabotage Noah and Anne’s respective blossoming affairs with stable, smart bakery owner Ginny (Clark Backo) and free-spirited drama teacher Logan (Manny Jacinto), hoping their former flames will return for consolation. Peter is to befriend Noah and get in his head to dissuade him from getting locked into a rebound. Meanwhile, Emma’s going to seduce Logan away from Anne, which includes her volunteering at a middle school production of “Little Shop of Horrors” (despite having no kids). Hilarity ensues, of course. And as Emma and Peter’s plan is in motion, their own platonic dynamic shifts into something more than they expected.
Unfortunately, while the first act zips along at a snappy clip, the story experiences major lulls in the second act and could stand for a tighter trim in the edit. The film’s energy suffers when the dynamic duo isn’t together, particularly when Peter is gallivanting about with Noah, setting up the situation where he’s tempted to cheat on his new love. The sequence is there to heighten the hijinks and show Peter being spontaneous (something Anne wanted to see more of in their relationship), but it stalls out on stale, belabored jokes. Another later scene, where Peter thinks better of entrapping Noah, accomplishes the exact same narrative goals without the superfluous elements.
That said, there’s still enjoyment to be had. Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (whose adaptation of “Love, Simon” toyed with heteronormative rom-com tropes) focus on character, not the eccentric, quirky caricatures typically utilized in their obvious cinematic influences (Meg Ryan’s ’90s oeuvre, “Addicted to Love” and “French Kiss”). Whereas other rom-coms in its weight class tend to feel like the pair are settling for each other, here we feel the power and poignancy of our heroes’ kismet bond. Slate and Day have great chemistry together. They both bring out the endearing, charming sides of their lovelorn characters, minus any mawkishness, with assured panache and prowess. Their vulnerable, introspective moments are tangible and perfectly calibrated in their skilled hands. Slate specifically shines in her repartee with Luke David Blumm, who plays a 12-year-old for whom she acts as an unofficial guidance counselor.
Technical aspects are also stellar. Cinematographer Brian Burgoyne’s nuanced cinematography shifts alongside the narrative, subtly emphasizing cool or warm emotions within the color story. Editor Jonathan Schwartz cuts with an eye toward character and comedy. Siddhartha Khosla’s score melts like butter into the crevices. His non-imposing, reflective, piano-forward compositions augment the emotional crux of scenes where Peter and Emma begin falling for each other, inadvertently hurt each other and inevitably iron out their lives. Soundtrack cues provided by music supervisors Season Kent and James Cartwright help shape the picture’s identity, combining chic modern tunes (like “Finding You Backwards,” sung by Dawes and Mandy Moore) with soulful, throwback tracks from Lonnie Russ, David Ruffin and The Four Tops, giving it a timeless texture.
Perhaps what’s most noteworthy is the feature’s sly, enlightened messaging that heartbreak allows for light to shine on the broken pieces. Outside of the conceit that complacency is a true relationship killer, there are no villains either. Its respectful, healthy approach to romance, positing that no relationship is ever a waste and there are no mistakes made on the search for true love, are relatively innovative concepts for the genre that are eloquently executed.