Once bound to premiere at SXSW followed by theatrical distribution, The Lovebirds, a romantic comedy starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, instead dropped on Netflix over the weekend (where it trended in the US’s Top 10). Honestly, Netflix feels like the right place for this movie, a slight but winsome rom-com farce notable only for the power of its leads’ chemistry. If it weren’t for Rae and Nanjiani—and Rae-and-Nanjiani—The Lovebirds would be completely forgettable. But with them, it’s a pleasant enough distraction for slightly less than ninety minutes.
Reteaming with Michael Showalter, who previously directed Nanjiani in The Big Sick, Nanjiani once again shows off his considerable charm as a romantic leading man, but he also gets to show a little of the action chops that got him a Marvel gig (if you missed Stuber, that is, and haven’t seen Nanjiani throw a punch). Rae, meanwhile, could power a city with her screen presence, and these two are so good together they beg for better material. The Lovebirds starts off promising enough, with a concise opening that perfectly demonstrates who Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) are as a couple. From the first blush of love to a bitter fight that isn’t about what it’s really about, Jibran and Leilani are a familiar pair. Just as they break up, however, they become accessories to murder and go on the lam.
The Lovebirds is, essentially, a screwball comedy, with a wacky premise and a series of unbelievable events, anchored in the relationship problems of Jibran and Leilani. The murder is no more or less believable than an escaped pet leopard, and their odyssey through New Orleans is as improbable as a roadtrip from Florida to New York. The believability of the premise doesn’t really matter, what matters is that we root for Jibran and Leilani to not only survive the night, but repair their relationship. On that level, The Lovebirds works just fine. (Although it is odd that they filmed in New Orleans, one of the most architecturally distinct and beautiful cities in the US, and made zero use of its native beauty. It’s like Showalter went out of his way to choose the most nondescript locations available.)
Where The Lovebirds falls down a bit is in its zany premise. The movie gets a shot in the arm just by virtue of its diverse leads, and draws a few laughs from Jibran and Leilani’s reluctance to go to the cops (jokes that would, admittedly, play better in a world where Ahmaud Arbery is still alive). But this is the kind of movie that should have a memorable supporting cast of wacky characters. Anna Camp and Kyle Bornheimer (who lately distinguished himself in Avenue 5) pop up for a torture scene, but neither one really stands out except that they are the only other recognizable faces in the movie. It feels like a missed opportunity, that The Lovebirds doesn’t have a more distinctive cast of characters around Jibran and Leilani. This is a farce, let it be farcical.
Still, Nanjiani and Rae are so good that they carry the movie themselves. Rae’s line readings are particularly delicious, and prompt multiple rewinds just to catch what she’s saying, as she and Nanjiani often deliver lines on top of each other, like a truly well-established couple speaking their own language. This is what The Lovebirds does best, depicting a couple at the make-or-break moment that will decide the course of the rest of their lives together. That moment just happens to be wildly improbable and involve an Eyes Wide Shut twist that, surprisingly, Showalter doesn’t do much with. He is fully capable of managing absurdity (see also: Wet Hot American Summer), but The Lovebirds soft-pedals its most bizarre turn of events. It’s a nice enough movie to while away an afternoon, but it is only notable for the combined star wattage of Nanjiani and Rae. I would watch another movie starring them in an instant, though, if Hollywood would like to make them the new Tracy-Hepburn.