Heartwarming! From the outstanding cast chemistry to the clever writing, you need to make I Want You Back part of your Valentine’s Day celebrations at the cinema (for the limited theatrical run) or on Amazon Prime Video. Much like Broken Hearts Gallery showed us that the romcom can be reimagined for today’s teen and 20-something audiences, Jason Orley’s I Want You Back is the romcom reimagined for 30-something audiences. If it can make cynics like me once again believe that my “plane mask buddy” (you’ll just have to see the film to get the reference) is still out there, you too will find the story incredibly endearing! While the classical American romcom has largely fallen out of favor with a significant portion of movie audiences over the last decade or so, there are films that take the foundation of what made the romcom such an American cinema staple, and upon it, build plots and characters that both resonate across ages and cultures and still deliver the quirks and laughs that are such a hallmark of the romcom. It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed such excellent chemistry between an ensemble in a comedy, and it is the characters that will command a rewatch of this soon-to-be quintessential romcom, that will undoubtedly rank up there with the likes of Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice and more.
Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are total strangers. When they meet, they realize they were both dumped on the same weekend. Their commiseration turns into a mission when they see that each of their ex-partners have happily moved on to new romances.
What makes this movie work so well is the focus on character-driven (or dramatic) storytelling. When the character(s) drives the plot, we refer to it as drama, while the action driving the plot is referred to as melodrama. Just a little film studies there, for ya. The movie wastes no time in establishing who our central and chief supporting characters are; this is an important screenwriting decision because it allows for the character reactions to drive the story in a manner in which we believe everything the characters do because the rules for the characters were established up front. You can get away with anything if you set it up appropriately.
Yes, there are melodramatic moments (and you will need to engage your suspension of disbelief), but every emotional beat and turning point is earned and delivered meaningfully. Meaningful. That is a description that is so often overlooked in comedies. When writers focus so much on laughs, the art of meaningful storytelling is lost. In the writers room, a strong story with well-developed plot and characters can always be punched up with laughs, versus a laugh-a-minute story with poorly-developed plot and characters, which has a problem requiring major diegetic surgery.
Authenticity! You will find the characters to be incredibly believable and real, with little to no pretense. Our leads and supporting cast feel like your coworkers, neighbors, and friends. We all have someone in our lives of whom the characters will remind us. In fact, you will likely see yourself IN one or more of the characters. When you can place yourself in the story, the degree to which it impacts you will significantly increase. And it’s even better when you can laugh along with the characters. But what makes these characters connect and resonate with audiences is the unexpected level of vulnerability the characters demonstrate. And it’s our vulnerabilities, our flaws and the ability to learn, grow, and experience redemption that makes us human.
Perhaps you are like me, a romantic cynic. So, your default setting is disdain and pessimism for anything that even has a hint of romance and erotic love. I find it difficult to connect with the typical romcom, even the great ones of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Just feels like something so out of reach and unbelievable that I’d rather watch another horror movie. If someone like me can be touched by I Want You Back, then I know that it can touch even the most cynical. Personally, I see myself as two-parts Emma and one-part Peter. And it’s the prolific opportunities to connect with the characters that will cause this movie to find a place in your heart.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Digital Citizenship at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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