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.