I WANT YOU BACK. Contrary to my frequent cantankerousness — contrarianism in all things! — I like romantic comedies (almost) as much as the next audience member. Despite their frothiness and sometime ubiquity, romantic comedies are charming by design, an opportunity for attractive people to occasionally act the fool and (if I'm feeling sentimental) find love in unexpected places. Most importantly, at least according to the tenets of their original design, these movies can be a showcase for the most sophisticated, challenging writing in movies. Comedy is difficult enough but this genre has, from its inception, called upon writers (and actors, in fairness) to construct complicated verbal and physical jokes in multiple, distinct voices not just for laughs, but with enough authenticity and care to allow the audience to believe, at least for a couple of hours, people can actually be this funny, this sexy, this bumbling and verbal all at once. It is a genre of elevated, mundane humanism and a high-wire act of joke construction and story structure. It's no small feat when done well.
The problem, of course, is that it is increasingly not done well. Decades have worn the edges from the characters and their wits, the expediency of the money machine has simplified the scenarios and the language. What started as the cleverest of genres has gradually drifted down into abject dullardry. Nobody's fault, really, just a sign of the times.
Which is not to say I Want You Back is dull or stupid. Rather, I wanted to set up the dynamic that leads me to both dread and look forward to these modern romantic comedies (with casts so frequently composed of beloved comedians and character actors becoming stars). Despite my trepidation, I remain a sucker for the form, usually foolishly hoping for a hyper-literate slapstick love story to emerge from the quagmire. I Want You Back may not be the one but I can't stay too mad at it.
Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) have been almost simultaneously dumped by their respective partners in favor of seemingly more dynamic, less fearful paramours. Anne (Gina Rodriguez), thinking Peter has become a lifeless corporate stooge, takes up with the momentarily electrifying middle-school dramaturge Logan (Manny Jacinto). Noah (Scott Eastwood), despite an enduring affection for Emma, sees greater possibility and bigger sparks with Ginny (Clark Backo).
Peter and Emma, heretofore unknown to each other, meet by happenstance, strike up a friendship and decide to join forces to wreck the new romance of each other's ex. What could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty, as it turns out, but none of it particularly surprising.
The movie coasts on the charms of its stars with good reason: Slate has emerged as one of the most adorable, complicatedly low-key screen talents in recent years. Ditto Day, except there is nothing low-key about his performances when he is at his best. The problem, I think, is the script's insistence on the schlubbiness and undesirability of its two leads. They are both undeniably sexy and charming, albeit in a non-traditional (for Hollywood) way, and their attributes shine through in the comedic bonding scenes they share. The romantic tension between them is palpable throughout, and the movie does the characters and the audience a disservice by ignoring/belaboring the will-they-or-won't-they aspect of their relationship. The trope has become a cliché for a reason, after all — it wouldn't be a romantic comedy without it. By a similar token, Noah and Anne have very little inner light, despite the good work Eastwood and Rodriguez both do to enliven them.
I Want You Back falls, then, into a category between categories. Light and innocuous, with flashes of subversive humor, it's not quite a throwaway but it isn't a thing of substance, either. R. 116M. AMAZON PRIME.
KIMI. His career hasn't been as noisy as some (despite being a festival darling at the beginning and an Oscar winner in the middle), but Steven Soderbergh may go down as the greatest of all time. While auteurs and filmmakers of several generations have been decrying the advent of streaming movies by any organ available, Soderbergh has been working within whatever framework will allow him. He's brokered deals with multiple streaming giants and, in that period, done some of the liveliest, most ambitious work of his long and storied career. Each one may not be an "event" movie as Christopher Nolan would have it, but they are all significant and fascinating accomplishments — the continuing output of a (seemingly ageless) master craftsman.
The latest addition to the canon, Kimi stars Zoë Kravitz as a severely agoraphobic tech worker (she corrects language misunderstandings for the eponymous artificial intelligence) who is drawn out of her home and into corporate intrigue when she hears a violent crime on one of her work streams. It's a taut, paranoid thriller in a 1970s vein but with thoroughly modern trappings. It is also a master class in economical movie-craft, with subtle camera movements, artful lighting and perfect editing (all the work of Soderbergh himself, albeit credited to his pseudonyms). Kimi makes much of little and, like much of the director's work, would serve as an excellent example to others of how to curb excess and focus on craft. R. 89M. HBO MAX.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
BELFAST. Kenneth Branagh writes and directs his own Irish coming-of-age story. PG13. 98M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
BLACKLIGHT. Liam Neeson plays a retiring spy and you'll never guess what happens to his family. PG13. 108M. BROADWAY.
THE CURSED. Sean Ellis writes and directs a horror movie set in a 19th century French village with vampires and worse. 113M. BROADWAY.
DEATH ON THE NILE. PG13. 127M. Kenneth Branagh and his mega-stache return as Hercule Poirot in the ensemble Agatha Christie mystery remake. Starring Gal Gadot and Annette Bening. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
DOG. Channing Tatum stars in a buddy-/road-trip movie with a Belgian Malinois. Woof. PG13. 90M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
JACKASS FOREVER. It's all fun and games until somebody in this aging crew breaks a hip. R. 96M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
LICORICE PIZZA. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of coming of age and first love in 1970s California. Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. R. 133M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MARRY ME. JLo as a pop star who marries rando teacher Owen Wilson as if Bennifer 2.0 hasn't put me through enough. PG13. 112M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MOONFALL. Halle Berry goes to space to save the planet with Patrick Wilson and John Bradley. PG13. 120M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
PARALLEL MOTHERS. Drama about a pair of mothers to be — one adolescent, one middle aged — bonding in a maternity ward. R. 123M. MINOR.
SCREAM. The horror franchise picks up 25 years later like a Friends reunion but stabbier. With Courtney Cox, Neve Campbell and David Arquette. R. 120M. BROADWAY.
SING 2. The animated animal musical returns with the voices of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. See what happens when you take your mask off? Starring Tom Holland and Zendaya. PG13. 148M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
UNCHARTED. Treasure-hunting adventure with Tom Holland, Sophia Ali and Marky Mark, whom I only acknowledge in his Funky Bunch form. PG13. 116M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.