2020, NR, 87 min. Directed by Michael Showalter. Starring Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Nicholas X. Parsons, Kyle Bornheime, Barry Rothbar, Catherine Cohen.
REVIEWED By Selome Hailu, Fri., June 5, 2020
Toting two of Hollywood’s most charming comedic actors, a vibrant New Orleans backdrop, and a car chase thrown in for spice, The Lovebirds seemed to have all the trappings of a perfect summer comedy. The charm and momentum of Rae and Nanjiani’s performances alone should be enough to inspire a future generation of rom-com creators. But in spite of the strong cast and sharp humor, the film matches the energy of most days spent under quarantine: unmemorable.
The opening scenes are a successful set-up for the ultimate feel-good flick. Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) wake up together after meeting at a party, take a giddy walk in the park, and enjoy a so-awkward-it’s-cute brunch date. But that’s all it is – a good first date. They don’t share much beyond their first impressions of each other before the film jumps four years into the future, where the couple’s bickering escalates from simple restaurant choices, to barbs about who’s shallow and who’s a failure. The arguments feel loveless, so when Leilani and Jibran utter at the same time that they shouldn’t be together anymore, you’re inclined to believe them.
Their separation is delayed when, right after breaking up, they accidentally hit a cyclist with their car. As the cyclist rides away, a man claiming to be a cop (Sparks) bursts into the car with them, chases down the biker, and runs him over. Then he puts the car in reverse and runs him over again. And again. Rae and Nanjiani’s wide eyes and frantic whispers add a dark hilarity to the borderline absurdist moment. But besides a scattering of witty one-liners (many of the best spoiled in the trailer), The Lovebirds never reaches those stakes again.
The problem at the heart of The Lovebirds is its failure to know what it wants to be. It’s a romantic comedy with a mystery twist, but both the romance and the mystery are underdeveloped. Rae and Nanjiani show strong comedic timing and masterful banter, but the screenplay doesn’t reveal a conflict between them any deeper than basic insecurity, overloading them with pedestrian dialogue about how sick they are of fighting all the time. The actors are only given real room to perform in the vigilante plot, but a series of too-convenient clues fall into their laps – a cell phone left at the crime scene, an address dropped on the floor, etc. – undermining any of the characters’ cleverness. Without much actual solving of the crime, Leilani and Jibran make it to the end alive and predictably reestablish their love mostly as a result of luck.
Weighed down with the paint-by-numbers plot, The Lovebirds is a lackluster follow-up to director Michael Showalter’s highly acclaimed 2017 collaboration with Nanjiani, The Big Sick. In the end, the film never gives the central couple anything to make the audience root for them. There is one standout moment of tenderness: before their last-ditch effort to figure out who commandeered their car and why, Leilani senses Jibran’s stress and knows exactly how to calm him down. Bruised, bloody, and traumatized from the events of the day, they belt Katy Perry’s “Firework” in the back of a cab to release all their tension, a performance so infectious that the driver joins in. Their joy and carefree laughter in the face of their circumstances makes the moment feel copy-pasted from a warm coming-of-age film — but only a half hour before the end, it’s too late to save The Lovebirds from itself.
Every year seems to have its blockbusters about innocent civilians who get roped into solving crimes and conspiracies. 2018 gave us the trope-defiant Game Night, and even if Najiani's last tent pole comedy, 2019's Stuber, fell flat, it still won praise for his chemistry with Dave Bautista. The Lovebirds isn’t the first of these films and it won’t be the last. Hopefully though, the coming years’ will be a little less formulaic.