Directed by Michael Showalter
Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks
People don’t realize that what we now consider “classics” are accidents of taste, time and memory. It also takes as much effort and deliberation to produce forgettable movies as it does unforgettable ones. Most of the movies we see fall into the previous category—the visual counterpart of empty calories, popcorn we consume with our eyes and ears. The hope is that the popcorn will taste good and leave a pleasant aftertaste, even if the aftertaste won’t last longer than the time it takes to navigate away from your Netflix page.
I’m happy to report that The Lovebirds, which was set to make a theatrical bow before this pandemic forced it to take refuge in Netflix, is that kind of popcorn movie. In many ways, The Lovebirds feels like a better fit for a streaming service. A screwball comedy that firmly squeezes itself into the template of such one-night farces like Date Night and Game Night, its ambitions feel too modest to top up a movie screen; it snuggly fills the confines of your gadget or TV screen.
When the movie opens, we see Jibran, an aspiring documentary filmmaker played with trademark nebbishness by Kumail Nanjiani, saying goodbye to ad agency copywriter Leilani, animated by Issa Rae with alert energy. It’s the morning after a hookup, and the pair soon discovers that they don’t really want the one-night stand to end.
Cut to three years later: Jibran and Leilani are arguing as they get ready for a dinner party with friends, sparring over Jibran’s still-unseen documentary about financial malfeasance in the educational system and whether they would make a good team for The Amazing Race. The bickering continues in the car, where Leilani criticizes Jibran for being complacent in failure, and Jibran fires back by calling Leilani shallow. With a start, they both realize that their relationship is over. They turn to look at each other with sad eyes.
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When boom! Their car runs into a guy fleeing on his bike. And so begins a night of madcap scurrying around New Orleans, where Jibran and Leilani are forced to work together to clear their names of a murder they didn’t commit. The central mystery in Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall’s script isn’t really the point—to give you a hint, it’s a less clever iteration of the final reveal in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The plot is really just a line upon which to hang Nanjiani and Rae’s pleasurable squabbling: As the night becomes more and more surreal (watch out for a horse and a dose of barnyard violence), Jibran and Leilani argue over everything from the spontaneity of orgies, the lyrics of “Bad Boys”, and the best way to use a stiletto for breaking and entering.
The appalling situations in which the exes have found themselves might even provide the spark to reignite their love. But that’s not the point, either: What Nanjiani and Rae have isn’t romantic chemistry exactly, but the vibrant give-and-take of two comic actors coming into their own. The Lovebirds isn’t the project that will highlight the powers of these two exciting performers, but it’s good for a chuckle. And in times like these, sometimes a chuckle is all you need.
The Lovebirds is currently streaming on Netflix