Despite things being as they are in 2020, actors Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae are having a really solid year. Rae’s The Photograph is an engrossing story focused on a mature love, while her HBO program, Insecure, is all over social media. Nanjiani made headlines for his physical transformation for the upcoming Marvel Studios release The Eternals, something which gave the Oscar-nominated screenwriter/actor a great deal of surprise. Individually, the pair are strong performers, capable of jumping between genres with absolute ease, even adjusting tones within the same film. It seems obvious to put the pair together and new Netflix action-comedy The Lovebirds is evidence that they work incredible well together, even when the script is mostly by the numbers.
Four years after beginning in an intensely passionate relationship, Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) no longer feel any kind of connection. Talking turns to shouting as they argue over inconsequential everything’s instead of being open with each other. Just as they decide to throw in the towel, they get accidentally thrust into a car chase and blamed for the resulting death of a suspect. Believing that the truth is too ridiculous to be believed, they set out to clear their names, but these two are no Sherlock and Watson and their patience is wearing thin.
The Lovebirds is a story audiences have seen in some form or another for years. In recent memory, Birds on a Wire (1990), Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), and Date Night (2010) spring to mind when thinking of some version of wrongfully accused/falsely identified/mistaken identity narratives involving couples or former couples. Part of the comedy comes from their oil-and-water interactions and the resolution almost always ends with them reconciling, should the parties be aggrieved. Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) from a script from Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall (NBC’s Blindspot), the whole event is a tight 86-minutes with each moment working seamlessly to move the conflicted couple on to the next, potentially more dangerous, and certainly more ridiculous situation. As predictable as most of The Lovebirds is, there are enough original turns to incite surprise in an audience, a key element considering the thriller-aspects of this crime comedy. It certainly helps that the inciting incident, while a touch ludicrous, lays the groundwork for the incredible leaps of logic that follow. So while the notion that any couple could be so easily blamed for someone’s murder might be easy to believe, the fact that the audience never once disbelieves it when Jibran and Leilani are knocked out, held captive, and told they’re going to be tortured with hot grease or mystery item #2, says something to the slowly elevating stakes set up in the premise. It’s certainly in the film’s favor that Nanjiani and Rae are a great deal of fun to watch as they squabble their way through New Orleans trying to clear their names. Each of them, as actors, possess great timing and delivery that make the extreme reactions or responses to tension hilarious, while also being able to ground the more serious moments with a touch of gravitas and realism.
Two things which surprise about The Lovebirds are the beautiful way they handle the lead-up to the climax along with the way they so perfectly balanced the tone for comedy. The most surprising, however, is the way it deals with the undercurrent issue of systemic racism and authoritarianism as the driving force behind their reaction to the inciting incident. The issues are played for laughs in the film, but there’s little difference between the plot of Queen & Slim, a fantastic drama from Fall 2019 which dealt with a traffic stop gone wrong involving two Black individuals and The Lovebirds, which involves a Pakistani man and an African-American woman. In short, modern conventions tell us that Jibran and Leilani won’t make it through a conversation with the cops without being beaten or worse. This should be terrifying, but Rae’s delivery as Leilani calmly explains what violence she will do to Jibran as they workshop how a talk with the police will go is darkly farcical and funny. It can certainly be agreed upon that if the two go to the cops and take their chances, there is no movie. There is no watching them undertake and attempt to survive various tasks while learning lessons about why their relationship failed (hint: poor communication and judging themselves off of others are two huge reasons) in an effort for there to be a happy ending. But the reasoning devised by Abrams, Gall, and co-story developer Martin Gero (NBC’s Blindspot) is incredibly specific and narrow. The humor is gallows in nature and could not go any other way. Humor often points out weaknesses in armor and those who don’t see the dark humor in the situation have a privilege they need to examine. To the credit of all involved, nothing is treated as low-hanging fruit when it comes to humor and the cast more than delivers the goods.
The trick, though, is that much of The Lovebirds doesn’t work without an audience. Yes, sure, once you click “play” you become an audience, but watching it solo is not much of an audience for a film that really needs the energy of a crowd to really generate mojo. There is some wonderful line delivery by Rae and Nanjiani that barely registered a chuckle or chortle and certainly not a guffaw, but the opportunity for a big reaction is there. So while it’ll be easy for audiences to pile on a film as a “Netflix release” (something that’s never made sense given the literal plethora of award-worthy films the streamer distributes), I wonder how many will notice that much of the energy from this comedy resides on how well the audience reacts. There’s something about hearing someone respond to something in a theater and feeling that empathy wash over everyone. It’s in the way the air went right out of the room during the end of Queen & Slim and it’s in the way that you can tell audiences would’ve had fun rooting for Jibran and Leilani as they bicker over whether or not they could win The Amazing Race or if they know the words to Katy Perry’s Firework.
Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with a little predictable fun. Despite a great number of attempts to make certain situations threatening, The Lovebirds isn’t the kind of flick where the bad guys win. Instead, it’s a breezy way to spend some time, giggling a bit, and wondering what you might do in the same situation. While this reviewer is fairly certain that, if it happened to us, EoM editor Crystal Davidson would be rocking the gold outfit while I’d be dressed as a unicorn (I do love purple), and I’d be following her lead every step of the way. Why? She’s the smart one. If you feel like working that out with your friends or significant other, just log in and load it up. The lovebirds are waiting.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning May 22nd, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.