I Want You Back is an appropriate title. It’s a flashback to an era in which adult couples in comedies acted like adults, well mostly, in movies. It was before the 2000s where they began to despise each other for no other reason then plot find themselves in love in the final act because of the deus ex machina. It was also before the 2010s where every comic tried to have the last joke in a scene that comedies just became a series of jokes for 100 minutes or so. It’s also not like the John Hughes-era romcoms where a person was choosing between two people with the one they want being a secretly awful person while ignoring the one who actually had feelings for them.
No, this is a movie about young 30-somethings in Atlanta having to deal with the complexities that come with intimate relationships. The fact that this movie presents a look at Atlanta that is a far cry from the Hee-Haw/Green Acres Southern Gothic stereotypes of the past is already a bonus. When the movie opens, Emma (Jenny Slate) is in a restaurant with her boyfriend, Noah (a wise casting of Scott Eastwood) who bluntly says he’s breaking up with her as he’s gotten more interested with another woman, Ginny (Clark Backo) who owns a pie shop.
At the same time, Peter (Charlie Day) is happily attending the birthday of the nephew of his girlfriend, Anne (Gina Rodriguez) who pulls him aside and says she’s been discouraged by his lack of responsiblity throughout their six years together. Peter works for a company that manages retirement homes. Anne, herself, is an English teacher, who wanted to see the world and even act. Emma works as a recepitionist for an orthodontist while Noah is a fitness trainer for a gym but later says he has notice she hasn’t been too interested in him or his job.
As is always the case with these movies, both Emma and Peter discover they work in the same office building. When Emma witnesses a teenage couple show their love for each other in the waiting room, she leaves the office. At the same time, Peter gets upset during a meeting when he finds out that Anne is already posting pics on social media with a new boyfriend, Logan (Manny Jacinto) and leaves. They both discover themselves weeping on the stairwell and become friendly even going to a karoake bar after work to get drunk and sing.
Talking more about their relationship break-ups, they device a Strangers on a Train scheme to make things difficult for their exes as they begin their new relationships. Peter goes to the gym and begins to train with Noah, eventually becoming more friendly with him. Eventually, while on a run through Atlanta, they go to Ginny’s store where he notices Noah and Ginny are really in love with each other.
Logan is the theater/drama teacher at the school where Anne works and Emma lies her way into helping the tweens in their production of Little Shop of Horrors saying she performed the musical in her youth. Emma working for an orthodontists while Little Shop has a character who is a orthodontist is a nice connection. Emma also begins to provide comfort to a troubled student, Trevor (Luke David Blumm), who’s having to work on the play as part of his punishment. (This was also something that I laughed at as I know administrators often do this. My brother taught chorus briefly after college and he said they’d drop the delinguents in his class.)
If you’ve seen any romcom, you know where this is headed. Through their scheming, Emma and Peter eventually see each other in a different way and begin to have feelings for each other. But what I liked was how none of the other characters are portrayed as bad people really. Noah generally would be portrayed as the ignorant jock. But there’s a sensitive side to him that he shows Peter. And he’s not afraid of acting that way in front of Ginny, who really does love Noah.
A sequence in which Peter and Noah attend a nightclub for a boys night out could have ended with Noah having sex with some younger women when they go to a house party, but it doesn’t go down this route. This is actually one of the movie’s best scenes as we get to see Eastwood, who has been known for more dramatic and action related roles, cut loose. There’s also a nice cameo by another Saturday Night Live alum that fits in its short time frame.
I Want You Back takes it title from a Jackson 5 song but this isn’t a family friendly romcom. It’s R-rated but it’s not raunchy. The F-bomb is dropped lot. During one funny scene that showcases just how awkward a menage a trois would be, Logan, Emma and Anne try it but don’t get too far. No, this isn’t raunchy, so if you’re expecting American Pie, look elsewhere. And this isn’t cruel or mean-spirited like the atrociously disgusting The Wrong Missy (which I gave up on after 30 minutes). Yes, Emma and Peter are doing this for the wrong reasons. But Anne herself sees that Logan isn’t right for her as the threesome idea makes both her and Emma uncomfortable. Sometimes, relationships just don’t work out.
Eventually as movies do, there’s a scene in which Emma, Peter, Noah, Ginny, Logan and Anne are in a setting together. How this movie gets to this scene I won’t tell, but it does seem plausible they would all be in this one place at the same time. And you know it’s eventually going to come out how and why everyone knows everyone else. They’ll be arguments, break-ups and reconcilations.
The ending will also put Emma and Peter together after they’ve had a huge argument after expressing their true feelings in which something will hark back to what seemed a throwaway line earlier in the movie. It reminded me a little bit of the ending of Say Anything. But the chemistry between Day and Slate makes it better. We don’t need a kissing in the rain scene to know they’re going to be together after the credits roll.
As I said before, this movie is set in and around Atlanta. It’s refreshing to see a romcom in which interracial couples can be together without it being an issue. The one good thing about the Georgia Film Commission (other than its very good tax incentives) is to portray the state in a more positive light after its ugly, racist and prejudiced past. This movie would’ve probably been set in Chicago, New York City, Boston or San Francisco if it was made just 15-20 years ago. Fillmmakers need to portray that people in one region of the country behave and act just like characters in other parts.
But aside from geographic and regional stereotypes debunked, this movie gives us characters that are more three-dimensional. And for a romcom, there’s good comedy to it without having to reduce to cheap laughs. Jason Orley, the movie’s director, has worked on movies like It’s Complicated and The Intern, both directed by Nancy Myers. I could sense some influence. Her movies are about people not characters. I Want You Back is a movie about people not characters.
What do you think? Please comment.