Two new romantic comedies opening this weekend, Marry Me (in theaters and streaming on Peacock) and I Want You Back (streaming on Amazon Prime Video), try to envision how true love might arise from situations in which two perfectly nice-seeming people behave in ways no real human being has ever been known to. Since that “wait, how did this happen?” feeling is indeed how falling in love often feels from the inside, maybe true soulmates will be able to roll with the objectively preposterous premises of these two sweet-spirited if logic-free movies. But if you’re looking to queue up a new rom-com with your honey on Valentine’s Day, which one should you choose? It depends on whether you like your meet-cutes big, glossy, and packed with A-list actors or small-scale and wistful, with an offbeat cast of up-and-comers.
I Want You Back, directed by Jason Orley and written by Love, Simon screenwriting team Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, is a crisscrossing relationship farce about two recently dumped thirtysomethings who meet while sobbing in the stairwell of the office building where they both hold unsatisfying jobs. Emma (Jenny Slate) is a receptionist at an orthodontist’s office; Peter (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day), who once dreamed of reforming the American eldercare system, works a depressing desk job for a predatory retirement-home chain. After a night of confessional conversation and drunken karaoke, they come up with a scheme to get their lost loves back: Peter will pretend to befriend Emma’s ex Noah (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint), an affable if less-than-bright personal trainer, in an attempt to sow doubts about Noah’s maddeningly perfect new girlfriend Ginny (Clark Backo). Emma, meanwhile, will attempt to seduce the new boyfriend of Peter’s ex, Logan (The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto), a middle-school drama teacher who fancies himself a sophisticated artiste. Predictably, these efforts at behind-the-scenes manipulation come back to bite the perpetrators in the ass. Within a matter of weeks, Peter and Noah have become actual friends, with all the attending moral complications, while Emma’s attempt to sabotage Logan’s relationship with the uptight Anne (Gina Rodriguez) lands her in the middle of an awkward attempted threesome.
I Want You Back does a good job of never demonizing its characters, even as the script pokes mild fun at their small self-deceptions and vanities. The greatest charm of this slight but winning romance is the easygoing chemistry between Slate’s and Day’s underachieving sad sacks. One of the film’s recurring themes is the superiority of day-in-day-out, “slow burn”-style love to the glamor of instant attraction, and these two performers, who are irresistibly charismatic while never seeming like movie stars, make their characters’ mundane daily interactions (stalking their exes’ social media over lunch, going to the movies to see Con Air) feel real and lived-in.
The middle section never quite delivers on its promise of fizzy, door-slamming farce, though one scene does have Day hiding in a laundry hamper while two other characters have sex. Slate, for her part, gets one showstoppingly silly moment when, serving as a stand-in for an actor in a middle-school play, she has to (or gets to) belt out the climactic love duet from Little Shop of Horrors with an earnest tween-aged Seymour. But the fundamental sourness of the movie’s premise—the scams these two are trying to pull on one another’s exes are, objectively, unethical and mean—never sits right with the sweetness of the central relationship. I Want You Back is a sometimes underwhelming vehicle for Day and Slate’s considerable comic talents, but it’s a pleasure to spend two hours in their company.
Marry Me, directed by Kat Coiro and based on a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby, departs from an even more extreme “just go with it” premise. Pop megastar Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) is set to marry her equally famous boyfriend, Bastian (played by real-life reggaeton superstar Maluma), at a live concert streamed to 20 million viewers. But just as she’s about to ascend through a door in the stage floor to begin their glitzy nuptials, she learns from her manager (John Bradley, playing a cuddly sidekick not unlike the one he played in last week’s Moonfall) that the tabloids have spotted Bastian cheating on her with one of her own assistants.
The impulsive Kat, already known for her history of short-lived marriages, decides to turn this humiliating situation into a spur-of-the-moment publicity stunt. Spotting a man in the crowd holding a “Marry Me” sign—it’s the title of her and Bastian’s latest hit single—she invites him up on stage and does just that, in a ceremony of dubious legality but indisputable virality. The guy with the sign, Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), is not even, as it turns out, a Kat Valdez fan; he’s a nerdy divorced math teacher dragged to the concert by his daughter (Chloe Coleman) and a Kat-worshipping colleague (Sarah Silverman).
The most suspension-of-disbelief-requiring passage comes next, when Kat and her publicity team decide that, incomprehensibly, the marrying-a-stranger-on-stage stunt will become more believable if Charlie and Kat pretend to be involved over the course of the next few months, appearing together at photo ops and red-carpet events. In between, Charlie, a man so resistant to the digital age he scorns social media and uses a flip phone, continues with his modest lifestyle of math-coaching and single-parenting. But he and Kat soon establish a warm if not yet romantic connection as she comes to see that, unlike the fans and paparazzi that hound her every move, he wants nothing from her except to see her happy.
Like the classic Julia Roberts–Hugh Grant rom-com Notting Hill, Marry Me is a barely disguised wish-fulfillment fantasy about what it might be like to be an ordinary mortal who somehow falls in love with a real-life superstar, and to have that love returned. Unlike Notting Hill, though, Marry Me never lands on a consistent tone: It’s too nice to be a show-business satire and too family-friendly to be sexy, even if Jennifer Lopez has never been more radiantly gorgeous or Owen Wilson more scruffily appealing.
The script’s biggest flaw is a failure to investigate the darker side of the Lopez character’s relationship to celebrity. A running joke has Kat being trailed by a videographer at all times, making private moments with her new faux-husband next to impossible. That she would need this to be pointed out to her multiple times hints at a degree of disconnection from the reality of non-famous life that would have been interesting to explore in a romance between two people with life experiences as different as a global superstar and a schleppy public school teacher. But the film sands down the Lopez character’s edges, suggesting she is always only one middle-school dance or cozy takeout dinner away from turning once again into Katty from the block.
Marry Me contains at least two original songs that, to this non-pop-music-listener, sound poised to climb the charts: the title number, which gets performed all the way through twice in contrasting contexts, and the even catchier “On My Way,” which scores the obligatory third-act montage where the two leads are separated and pining for each other. The fact that Marry Me contains anything so formulaic as a third-act separation montage should spell out clearly what you’re getting in for if you decide to watch it. But despite the ludicrousness of its premise, if I had to pick a new movie for Valentine’s Day night, I might recommend this cheerfully senseless yet oddly touching romance. There are plenty of worse ways to spend an evening than watching Owen Wilson kiss Jennifer Lopez on a Ferris wheel while you wash down heart-shaped chocolates with a glass of champagne.