The Lovebirds

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bomheimer

Director: Michael Showalter

Writers: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall

The Lovebirds is the kind of movie I struggle the most to write about. Not because it’s a terrible film though, because it isn’t. I almost wish it were; had this movie been able to inspire as strong an emotional reaction within me as hatred, then I could channel that blistering energy into the writing of a cathartic takedown. I cannot do that with mild amusement or indifference. It’s hard to stimulate any thoughts or insights on a film when the impression it leaves is no more lasting than the ice cubes in your drink. I might as well write about what I had for lunch yesterday (a cheese and prosciutto toastie with pesto) for all the enthusiasm I can muster. The consumption was not at all unpleasant and left me momentarily nourished, but those are the full extent of my feelings on the subject. The film is like a white noise machine with pictures; it hasn’t been designed for any level of engagement beyond mental distraction. I could have left it on in the background while going through my emails, writing on the walls in my own blood, or playing Pokémon (my three favourite quarantine past-times) and little would have been lost in the experience. Again, none of this means that The Lovebirds is terrible; it just means that writing 800+ words about it is going to take some effort.

I suppose the beginning is as good a place to start as any. The movie opens with lovebirds Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) the morning after what was clearly a dream first date. The two are totally smitten and keep looking for excuses to stay together so they can continue making lovey-dovey eyes at each other and giggle their way through some adorkable flirting. The movie then cuts to four years later when the honeymoon phase has long since ended. Leilani and Jibran are caught up in a heated argument about The Amazing Race which brings out some bitter points of contention between them. Her constant need for drama and spontaneity drive him up the wall while his inability to push himself and get anything worthwhile done grinds her gears. Jibran also makes a point about how he, as a documentary filmmaker, doesn’t watch reality shows, compelling Leilani to say, “Documentaries are just reality shows that no one watches”. Such should have been reason enough for Jibran to dump her there and then and never look back; nobody needs that kind of toxicity in their life. In any case, while they don’t exactly break up, they both know that they’ve reached an impasse and that it’s only a matter of time. “Are we done?” he asks her. “I think we’ve been done for a while” she answers. Before this realisation has a chance to sink in with either of them though, Jibran hits a cyclist with his car.

From there, what started off as a bad day only proceeds to get worse and worse. A moustached cop (Paul Sparks) arrives on the scene and commandeers their car to chase down the fleeing cyclist. Moustache, as nicknamed by Jibran and Leilani (spelt the American way of course, something that I am physically, mentally and emotionally unprepared to do), runs him down and repeatedly drives back and forth over his corpse for good measure while his passengers watch in stunned silence. This is one of the few instances of the movie committing to a gag derived from the tension and unlikelihood of the moment as opposed to foregrounding the leads over it with their superfluous jokes and commentary. The moustached cop (who in hindsight may not actually have been a cop) disappears as quickly as he appeared and Jibran and Leilani are left standing next to a dead man who was killed by their car. When some pedestrians appear and assume the worst (one calls the police and takes pains to make clear that it’s not because they’re people of colour but because they’ve actually committed a crime), the two go on the run and set out to clear their names. What follows are hijinks that’ll lead them to a sadistic rich couple, a dingy frat house, and a ritualistic cult orgy straight out of Eyes Wide Shut.

The film is notable for reuniting Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter, who together struck gold with 2017’s The Big Sick, one of the most charming, inspired and touching rom-coms in recent memory. This movie is as forgettable and banal as that one was fresh and delightful. That it brings Issa Rae, a unique and radiant voice in African-American comedy, into the mix should have made for something special. She and Nanjiani do have chemistry and their commitment compensates for some of the script’s shortcomings, but their roles are just too thin to allow for more than generic platitudes and occasionally amusing banter. Some exchanges are good for a laugh, such as when discussing the logistics of organising an orgy or when Jibran tries a locked door right after watching Leilani have a go, leading her to snap “Did you think that was one of those men-only doors?” Other times, they needed to understand that their constant, bickering asides were detracting more from the bit than they were adding and just shut up so that the scene could play out. When the movie lands on a set-piece, it doesn’t appear to trust that the comedy of the moment will be enough to carry the audience through. It instead relies on Nanjiani and Rae to either make observational one-liners or frantically talk over one another the whole way through, even when the moment doesn’t call for it and would have been stronger without.

The movie offers little in the way of personality. Its setting is New Orleans, one of the most vibrant and culturally rich cities in all of the United States, but the film’s depiction is so inactive and shapeless that it barely even registered with me. A place teeming with such life and soul that it was a character unto itself in HBO’s Treme has no business being as drab and inert as it is here. The movie does have the distinction of featuring a mixed-race, non-white couple as its leads and every now and then it does actually make something of the fact. One such moment is when Jibran and Leilani watch in paralysed fear as a passing police patrol drives slowly by, regarding them with suspicion the whole time and convincing them that they’re about to be caught out. It soon moves on and they are relieved to see that they weren’t on to them after all; they were just regular racist officers. A film with this setup that played more on the realities of being a person of colour in America, a sort of comical version of Queen & Slim, might have made for a more interesting and noteworthy, if not necessarily better, movie. As is, The Lovebirds has, in lieu of the pandemic that thwarted its intended cinema release, made its home on Netflix where it is destined to sit comfortably side by side with all the other benign, disposable comedies.



Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand

When you consider the vast amount of collaborative work that goes into making a film of any kind and factor in the endless number of things that can possibly go wrong, it really is a wonder that any great films get made at all. Even the most surefire, well-intentioned movies can go completely wrong with just a little bit of bad luck. Whether it’s a director who simply isn’t right for the project, an actor who has committed themselves to a misguided performance, a script that needed more time before its submission, a studio that refuses to concede any ground, an act of God, or any other number of things, some movies are just doomed to fail. Sometimes things go so badly that the studio is left with no choice but to release a movie that isn’t even finished, which is how we get films like Suicide Squad and Fant4stic. We can only guess what went wrong behind the scenes of Dolittle, a film that was originally to be titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle as directed by Stephen Gaghan (best known for geopolitical thrillers such as Traffic and Syriana (you know, for kids!)) until it was made to undergo extensive, studio-mandated reshoots. Whether it was pulled apart by conflicting ideas and intentions or if the movie Gaghan made was simply unsalvageable, Dolittle is a colossal trainwreck of epic proportions. It is so incoherent in its entirety, so confused in its intention and so disjointed in its construction that I’m honestly unsure if it can technically be considered a film.

To say that Dolittle has a plot would be charitable; it would be more accurate to describe the ‘film’ as a haphazard montage of outtakes and half-finished scenes cobbled together by a blind chimp. The endless 100-minute runtime consists of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a surly and eccentric man with a superhuman ability to talk to animals in a Welsh-ish accent, mumbling and twitching his way from one moment to the next while a collage of celebrity-voiced CGI creatures scramble around him spouting one-liners. The only indicator that one scene has ended and another has begun is a change in the setting. Such backdrops include a derelict mansion that Mrs. Havisham would call untidy, a whimsical ship sailing across the ocean blue, a vaguely Caribbean stronghold city ruled by a pirate king and a hidden cave of mystical secrets. The basic premise compelling him on his travels to these locales is that Queen Victoria (an underutilised Jessie Buckley) has fallen gravely ill and is need of a magical remedy. Joining the good doctor on his quest are his animal compatriots including Polly the maternal parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek), Yoshi the gruff polar bear (John Cena), Plimpton the sarcastic ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and Dab-Dab the scatter-brained duck (Octavia Spencer). Also along for the ride is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young animal-loving boy who steps in as Dolittle’s apprentice.

I think that’s the premise anyway; Dolittle is so cluttered with content and noise that it’s near impossible to make any of it out. Any sort of emotional resonance or thematic exploration that was supposed to be carried all the way through gets lost amidst all the screeches, pratfalls and fart jokes. We get that Dr. Dolittle is an unhinged but brilliant man who has lived in seclusion ever since his wife’s death (because of course our antihero’s backstory includes a tragic romance with a woman who only appears in flashbacks and never speaks a line of dialogue). We therefore do get these vague gestures towards something almost resembling an arc wherein a wounded recluse finds that the only way to heal himself and his animal patients is for them to open themselves and their sanctuary to the outside world, but between Downey Jr.’s bizarre acting choices and the absence of any intelligible character development it’s hard to read even that much into any of it. Playing a character previously depicted on-screen by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy in his first non-Marvel movie since 2014, not even Downey Jr. himself seems to know what he’s supposed to be going for and winds up fumbling into this awkward middle ground between his Ritchie Sherlock and Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow while clumsily maintaining a distractingly inconsistent accent. If ever there was an actor who might have been able to make some sense out of the chaos, it would be him. Sadly, some films are beyond saving.

The problems with Dolittle are legion and we could spend all day dissecting its narrative shortcomings, its weak characterisation and its staggering unfunniness but these are all just symptoms of what’s really wrong with this movie. The real problem is far deeper and more foundational: it is an incomplete film. Dolittle is a failure of filmmaking at its most basic, rudimentary level. Even when given a simple scene of characters talking, be it human to animal or human to human, everything about it feels off. Dialogue is spoken from off-screen or by characters facing away from the camera, eye-lines between the actors and their computer-generated co-stars don’t align, and the continuity between and within scenes is all over the place. Characters such as a dancing orangutan and a guy in stocks called Jeff turn up out of nowhere to deliver a gag only to suddenly disappear, never to be mentioned again. Footage that has been ripped out of its original context and repurposed to fulfil functions and communicate ideas that it was never intended for sticks out like a sore thumb. This is filmmaking 101 stuff we’re talking about and a movie that cannot get them right is no better than a book without any understanding of its own language or a song that cannot sustain its own key, timbre or form. Such rules can and should be defied or broken, but to do so would demand far greater literacy and self-awareness than Dolittle possesses.

I suppose that as far as kids movies go the CG animals are watchable enough; this is the kind of film where it works better if the animals look cutesy and cartoonish than if they look photorealistic. The movie did itself no favours though by casting based more on star power than on vocal talent. Many of the voices are so generic or are so inappropriate for the creature in question (looking at you Malek) that it isn’t always apparent who is saying what in a given scene. Not that learning who said what would be very illuminating given that 90% of the animals’ roles can be broken down to reaction shots and cringeworthy one-liners. The low point for me was probably watching a tiger called Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) scream “My Barry berries” upon being kicked in the groin (yes, that happens). Michael Sheen, who gleefully plays a moustache-twirling villain, appears to be the only actor who truly understands what kind of movie he’s in. What that is, I’m still not sure if I can say. There’s a definite Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckling epic aesthetic it’s going for, but it cannot hope to reconcile that feeling with its more topical, anachronistic elements. These include a whole bunch of modern quips like “snitches get stitches”, an Angry Birds reference, and an ironclad warship that dogs (geddit?) Dolittle and his crew. Again, these are elements that would work better in a movie that has a better idea of what it is but I don’t think Dolittle has a clue.

Dolittle is one of those truly bad films that really put things into perspective. In many of the reviews I’ve read I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being made between this film and Cats. There is a fundamental difference though which is that Cats, for all of the outrageous choices it made in depicting this hellish world inhabited by these grotesque, deranged, hypersexual humanoid cats, knew precisely what kind of movie it was. It may well be the most disturbing film ever made, but it’s also striking, true to itself, and memorable. Dolittle is none of those things; it is just an outlandishly bad film that offers nothing worthy of a strong reaction. The only thing in this whole film that I can honestly call distinctive is that it contains an extended dragon fart joke (yes, really). In essence it is the same kind of movie we see come out of Hollywood every year, one that was designed by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator with no allowance for cleverness, creativity or contemplation. Kids will probably laugh at the silly cartoon animals and parents may even be grateful for the temporary distraction, but they deserve better than this kind of rubbish. ‘Lazy’ is not a word I like using when criticising films because it devalues the efforts of those working people employed by the studios who put their time and labour into creating their rubbish, but in a film that feels this hastily strung together, that seemingly doesn’t care about offering its audience anything new or exciting and that neglects to employ the talent at its disposal to any greater use, I cannot think of a more appropriate word.