Jewish actress kicks off career rebirth with ‘I Want You Back’

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By Dan Buffa and Jordan Palmer, Special to the Jewish Light

Jenny Slate is the Jewish actress whose voice you know better than her actual physical appearance, something that is changing starting with her new movie this weekend on Amazon Prime.

Before the premiere of “I Want You Back,” exclusively for the streaming platform, you either knew her voice from kids movies such as “Zootopia” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” or the more adult fare of “Bob’s Burgers” and “Big Mouth.” It was the latter show, a Netflix Original series, that Slate made headlines with when she decided to leave the show over racial issues with her character.

Jenny Slate leaves

It was back in the summer of 2020 when Slate stated on Instagram that playing half-Black, half-Jewish as a white person is “an act of erasure of Black People.” Her run on the show ended late last year, and now that has freed her up to more feature film work. Roles like “I Want You Back,” where she co-stars with Charlie Day, are a big step in the right direction for Slate.

In the sharply written romantic comedy, Emma (Slate) and Peter (Day) are recently dumped young souls who inadvertently meet and befriend each other with a common goal: find a way to break up the new relationships with their exes (Scott Eastwood and Gina Rodriguez). Seemingly innocent yet attempting to do something unnatural and rude, Emma and Peter take their romantic interest into their own hands, all the while finding out what they really need in their lives.

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While Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s screenplay carries a few familiar plot threads, the biting humor in the dialogue and the earnest acting from the cast carry Jason Orley’s latest directorial debut to “worth a watch” ground. The Amazon Studios release going strictly to the streaming menu to watch on a cozy Friday works perfectly with the slow outburst of current theater fare.

Slate carries the movie, finding a good rhythm with the neurotic high volume of Day and creating someone who may be imperfect yet just wants to be loved like any other. The actress with the unforgettable voice (you either like the Fran Drescher-lite delivery or hate it) finally gets the center stage in a movie again and makes a dent. Remember it was her “Obvious Child” debut back in 2014 that first got people talking.

Jenny Slate gets lost

The Jewish actress suddenly got lost in being Chris Evans’ girlfriend to the public world, which short-circuited her non-voice work career… until now. “I Want You Back” offers the full-bodied Slate experience. Her ethnicity is as versatile as her screen presence. She comes from a Jewish family. Her grandmother was born in Cuba, to a family from Sweden and Croatia, and raised in France. All that culture trickled down to Slate, who is getting to put it to use as she nears her 40th birthday next month, in front of the camera and at home. She and her husband had a baby recently and named her Ida Lupine, which was inspired by the couple’s favorite flower.

“I Want You Back” doesn’t end with a nice bow for everyone, but it should get the word out that Slate is more just a reliable film voice or a courageous actor taking the right means for inclusivity in Hollywood; she’s a naturally funny actress who can switch to drama in a heartbeat.

Chris who?