It is now two years into the current decade, and exactly what kind of shape the romantic comedy will take in the 2020s remains unclear. After a great (and highly lucrative) run throughout the 1990s and into the early to mid-2000s, this once-successful subgenre went on serious life support for the rest of the ’00s and into the ’10s. Whether due to a shift in the culture’s sense of humor, a drastically changing landscape at the box office, or simply a lack of the next Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron, the rom-com was effectively booted from the multiplex in the latter half of the last decade.
From Netflix’s seemingly endless stream of Kissing Booth, Princess Switch, and To All the Boys sequels to pleasant surprises such as Hulu’s Palm Springs (2020), the only definitive thing about the rom-com in the 2020s is that their new home is on the Internet. It’s a shocking fall from grace, considering films such as Pretty Woman (1990), There’s Something About Mary (1998), Notting Hill (1999), What Women Want (2000), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), and Hitch (2005) were once capable of earning well more than $350 million each. I Want You Back, Jason Orley’s follow-up to his buzzy Sundance debut, Big Time Adolescence (2019), doesn’t make the outlook of the subgenre any clearer, but it does present an interesting argument about the future of the romantic comedy at large: Just because such films have been relegated to streaming services doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make a theatrical-sized effort.
The film opens with some amusing cross-cutting between two breakup scenes: one between Emma (Jenny Slate) and Noah (Scott Eastwood), and one between Peter (Charlie Day) and Anne (Gina Rodriguez). Here, we get a picture of who Emma and Peter are, what kind of partners they were to their now-exes, and what kind of inherent flaws are holding them back from being with the ones they still love. Naturally, they’re both blubbering messes, completely blindsided by how quickly their former plus-ones have moved on. They can’t function, they can’t focus on their work, they can’t even look at another happy couple without breaking down. This takes the viewer directly to the meet-cute they’ve been expecting: Emma and Peter, both crying in the same stairwell of the same office building, overhear each other’s sobs and begin to bond over their shared loss of love.
Here, I Want You Back becomes that chunk of When Harry Met Sally … (1989) when the titular characters mutually provide sympathetic comfort and platonic companionship as they work through their respective heartbreaks. It’s sweet, and Slate and Day have compelling chemistry, but it’s when things take a much wilder, much wilier turn that the two really get to show off what makes them truly unique as leads. However, at the point where another rom-com would oblige its leads to realize that they actually have feelings for one another and that the right match for them was right next to them all along, I Want You Back has its central duo devise a plan to break up each other’s exes and their new mates. Emma will attempt to sabotage Anne and her beau, Logan (Manny Jacinto), and Peter will make an effort to split up Noah and his rebound, Ginny (Clark Backo).
Director Jason Orley — before getting in the chair himself — used to put in work behind-the-scenes of both television sitcoms and Nancy Meyers movies. This background informs his work quite noticeably: I Want You Back, with its jazzy soundtrack and its finely curated production design, feels like a real product of the Meyers School of Directing. What’s more, Orley doesn’t waste his leads, both of whom are cable comedy staples: Slate for stealing scenes on Parks and Recreation (2009-15) and Bob’s Burgers (2011- ), Day for his tenured position on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005- ). Regrettably, the film’s script — which comes from This Is Us (2016-22) writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger — just isn’t on the same level, committing the cardinal sin of a romantic comedy: It’s not all that funny, and it’s never all that romantic, either.
This is where the genre lost touch when the 2000s gave way to the ’10s, and this is where I Want You Back fails to make any sort of lasting impact. There’s a troubling trend in comedy of the 2010s that is still lingering around this decade, and it’s a penchant for cynicism and a fear of earnestness. Too many of these movies today focus on a central pairing that’s too cool, too hot, too smart, or too jaded to participate in the kind of romantic-lead behavior of the past, and although it could be argued that it’s important for today’s films to comment on and correct the course of so many brazenly homophobic, flagrantly sexist, or adamantly heteronormative comedies of yesteryear, it’s just as essential for the new entries in the future canon to bring genuine humor and endearing romance to the table.
I Want You Back definitely toes that line between earnest and cynical, poking fun at the difficulties of finding romance and actually acknowledging the joys in its discovery, but the balance is never quite right. As such, the film is never thoroughly convincing. Slate and Day are delightful, no doubt, and their obvious talent significantly elevates the material, but their squeaky-voiced, effervescent charm can only carry the film so far — especially when they’re primarily playing off Eastwood and Rodriquez, two foils who, while plenty charming and charismatic in their own right, fail to keep up with its main duo’s spastic appeal.
With luck, 2020s romantic comedies will eventually settle on a good place between the callous humor of the 2010s and the unabashed sincerity of the 2000s. Unfortunately, they haven’t just yet, and the end result is a batch of gangly rom-coms that lack enough distinguishing features to be embedded in the collective consciousness — rather than fading away in a week’s time like the majority of streaming releases. The best-case scenario is that future titles in this niche category will carve their own distinctive path. For now, audiences must cope with an exiled and once-crowd-pleasing subgenre that’s still struggling to revive the beating heart it once had.
I Want You Back is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.