The Lovebirds showcases superb chemistry and rapport between its leads, underserved by a dopey plot and broad humor.
On paper, The Lovebirds should be a winner. Take the star and director of the excellent romantic dramedy The Big Sick add in the lead of the very good HBO series Insecure and set them to the task of resurrecting the largely dormant screwball comedy genre. The flip of gender roles in a classic screwball formulation would seem to be a perfect mashup of Kumail Nanjiani’s sense of false bravado with Issa Rae’s nervy energy. Alas, in execution the pair’s excellent chemistry is squandered by a plot that fails to come together effectively and a number of jokes that play too broadly.
We are introduced to our heroes at the very start of their relationship. Nanjiani’s Jibran and Rae’s Leilani evince an effortless chemistry through some witty and flirtatious banter. The actors do a remarkable amount to humanize their characters in a short amount of time. Just a few short scenes into the film, we jump ahead four years to find our leads settled into the tensions of a long-term relationship. I understand the filmmaker’s impulse to get right to the meat of the movie, especially when you have leads good enough to allow you to shortcut some relationship beats. Unfortunately, it seems to be wasting the film’s greatest asset – the spark between the leads. I would have liked the chance to spend more time with these characters in the nascent stage of their relationship, even more so considering The Lovebirds’ modest 87-minute run time.
When the film flashes forward after the intro, Jibran and Leilani are preparing for a party while navigating the precipice of the sort of quasi-fight that most couples know so well. Old, unresolved issues simmer beneath the surface as the couple lightly argue about frivolities. When Leilani notes that Jibran never likes any new restaurants, Nanjiani responds sarcastically with just the right hint of hostility that the food at one recent eatery was so salty that he felt “mouthfucked by the Dead Sea.” As their joust cautiously escalates to their professional lives, Rae effortlessly cuts him down when she describes her filmmaker boyfriend’s documentaries as “reality shows that nobody watches.” The couple continues to exchange barbs en route to the party slowly opening the door to long running tensions: her sexual history, his lack of ambition. And then, finally, just as the fight intensifies to a surprisingly vicious boil… the couple crashes into a biker who has cut in front of their car.
It is at this point that the plot machine kicks into gear… and the witty, charming, incisive relationship comedy we have been watching falls by the wayside. A purported police officer (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire) hops into Jibran and Leilani’s car to chase the biker in a lazily crafted action scene. Upon catching the biker, in the film’s most delightfully nasty little joke, the cop proceeds to run him over with the car again and again and again. And thus begins our madcap hijinks. Moments later, our heroes are fingered as the murderers, and so they run. As is the nature of these things, they spend most of the rest of the film engaging in increasingly ridiculous antics to solve the mystery ranging from the classic noir meet-up with a femme fatale to the break in of a fraternity to an extended spoof of the Eyes Wide Shut orgy scene.
None of the plot machinations really work. The mystery itself is uncompelling. The comedic set pieces play too broadly. The film seems far more amused by the sight of Nanjiani getting kicked in the ribs by a horse than I suspect many viewers will be. None of the supporting actors, including Anna Camp (the Pitch Perfect series) and Kyle Bornheimer (HBO’s Avenue 5), are given the chance to leave much of an impression. It is perhaps more frustrating because, just last year, Game Night showed that this sort of farcical comedy can still be effective.
At the end of the day, this is a perfectly cromulent studio comedy. It is never less than pleasant to spend time with Nanjiani and Rae. It is, however, disappointing to see the pair’s chemistry expended on such dopey action sequences. The Lovebirds’ first ten minutes speak to a tandem that would match-up perfectly in a very cute romantic comedy or a deeply acidic marital dramedy. I cannot help but feel saddened that the director of a movie as smart and textured as The Big Sick would fail to fully capitalize on that spark.
The Lovebirds is now available on Netflix worldwide.