Perhaps more essential as background ambience at your next Zoom happy hour than a piece of filmmaking, director Michael Showalter’s new Netflix rom-com “The Lovebirds” gets underway with an amusing bait-and-switch: After basking for a few minutes in the smack of blossoming love between Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (a very buff Kumail Nanjiani), we’re rudely met with a “4 years later” card and a relationship that has soured over time as awkward flirting morphs into an acidic exchange of insults. Putting disagreement about how they would fare on “The Amazing Race” aside (the social references here are aplenty), he thinks she’s shallow and she thinks his career is stilted. Romance...isn’t it grand?
These initial 10 or so minutes may be the movie's most fulfilling. A step-down from his last feature directorial effort, “The Big Sick” (and totally devoid of that film’s dramatic pulse), “The Lovebirds” sees Showalter indulging a less restrained, more chaotic side. A trio of TV veterans collaborated on the screenplay, and the final product resembles a story that would have been constructed by the “idea ball”-plucking manatees seen on “South Park” once upon a decade. That is to say, you’re better off reveling in the non-sequitur energy vibrating from scene to scene rather than expecting “The Lovebirds” to build up to a memorable or ambitious whole.
Starting with a bicycle-riding stranger plummeting onto the windshield as a bickering Leilani and Jibran drive to a dinner party, the plot here is a predictable pattern of perfect coincidences and perfectly horrible decisions. Before they can say “We should break up,” the couple is embroiled in a classic fish-out-of-water story of outrunning police for a murder they didn’t commit while navigating a criminal underworld to clear their name. The above sentence shouldn’t imply that there is ever any sense of real danger facing our bitter lovebirds; while background characters are unceremoniously dispatched in spurts of violence that manage to be more meaningless than anything in “Extraction,” Jibran and Leilani face threat by bacon grease and a horse’s kick in the stomach. Instead of arguing about the real “The Amazing Race,” they’ve been caught in their own perverse alternative…
…and as you might expect, this perverse alternative forces Jibran and Leilani to team up for their own good, in turn allowing for the familiar beats of reconciliation to ring between them. Watching the highs and lows of their relationship on the mend is enough to justify the existence of “The Lovebirds” beyond an extended SNL skit, sure, but anytime the proceedings hew close to drama, the more another D-word comes to mind: Derivative. Even in the dry movie landscape of 2020 where originality is an oasis, Showalter’s movie doesn’t elicit any sensation more pungent than its uninteresting sameness.
On the other hand, it's clear no one expects the movie to aim for a higher target than Showalter himself. One can appreciate the sprightly pace the director prioritizes in his 90-minute throwaway movie, though, and it helps that Rae and Nanjiani insist on playing their characters with the neurotic frenzy of someone who’s had five cups of coffee too many (or who, you know, is trying not to be framed for murder). Bouncing around to (and narrowly escaping from) increasingly surreal situations, Jibran and Leilani never spend a second more than required in one place for the movie to reel off its jokes. A few managed more than a light chuckle out of me, but in a movie whose laughs are firmly rooted in stereotypes and the splendor of rambling spontaneity, the success largely comes down to the casting.
Thank God, then, for the comedic chops of Rae and Nanjiani. The movie’s stars reliably maximize the comedic potential of every quip that passes not just through their motormouths, but through their wide eyes and physicality—even when the subpar jokes don’t land, Nanjiani in particularly has an elite-level talent for always seeming so damn baffled by what’s going on around him, as if he never reads the script beforehand. Usually that suspicion is a bad thing. Here, it makes for a winning comedic performance. When he waxes poetic about the unusual way restaurants serve milkshakes, his boyishness borders on glorious, even with all the muscle he’s packed on for his looming MCU debut. We’re never meant to fear for Jibran and Leilani in the eyeballs-to-the-screen kind of way, but there’s some mild amusement in how the two comic personas act like it anyway.
Ultimately, “The Lovebirds” almost never transcends the feeling that it has simply Frankenstein’d together tropes of juvenile frathouse comedy, discombobulated Happy Madison production and third-grade-level examinations of social politics or romance. Ultimately, “The Lovebirds” could give a damn. Save it for a palette cleanser after switching out of your Criterion Channel app.
"The Lovebirds" is rated R for sexual content, language throughout and some violence. It's on Netflix now.
Starring: Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp
Directed by Michael Showalter