The Lovebirds, directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter, proves just what star power can do. Originally scheduled as a theatrical release, but moved to Netflix as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the kind of movie that would benefit from a live, laughing audience. The chemistry between stars Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae keeps the romantic comedy charming.
After what was supposed to be a one-night fling, Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) try and fail to leave each other’s company; the central couple have an undeniable connection. But fast forward to three years later, and the honeymoon period has definitely ended. Leilani’s attachment to social media and need for spontaneity annoy Jibran, whose inability to make decisions and finish his documentary annoy Leilani in turn. On their way to a friend’s party, things finally reach a breaking point, and the couple calls things off. Unfortunately, immediately splitting ways isn’t in the cards, as they witness a car crash and become suspects for a murder.
The quest to prove their innocence — and stay alive, as they’re pursued by both the cops and the criminals actually responsible for the assassination — drives the action, but the draw of The Lovebirds isn’t murder mystery intrigue so much as just watching Nanjiani and Rae be funny in each others’ general vicinity. Their flirting is genuinely sweet, whether they’re joking positively about their respective “I want to kiss you” faces or sniping at each other about the little things that drive them crazy. At one point, Leilani snaps at Jibran about a negative Yelp review he’d written with his “white woman fingers,” while Jibran teases Leilani about her Instagram addiction, describing a new fav on a picture with deadly, exaggerated seriousness as she resists checking her phone. Silly as it all might sound, Nanjiani and Rae make it work through sheer star appeal, turning the personas of hunky nerd and confident career woman up to 11 .
The plot, which takes Leilani and Jibran into the depths of a Eyes Wide Shut-esque cult, complete with masks and orgies, is thin. There aren’t really other characters so much as excuses to throw the lovebirds into increasingly strange situations as they try to figure out what’s going on. Of the supporting cast, Paul Sparks stands out as a corrupt cop, played with a kind of flat, nonchalant menace reminiscent of Michael Shannon. A brief mention of some unresolved romantic trauma in his past, which would be rich to mine in a movie about repairing a relationship, is left untapped.
There’s also little sense of the film’s locale of New Orleans besides Leilani and Jibran occasionally name-dropping the city; their surroundings are generally featureless and bland, meaning the action feels listless as well. Even as they run all over town trying to find their next clue, the easiest, most iconic New Orleans location, Bourbon Street, is nowhere to be seen. That puts even more weight on Nanjiani and Rae’s chemistry to keep things compelling.
The script, by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, excels in banter. At one point, the exes jab each other to such a rapid degree that their bickering causes a criminal to complain that they sound like his parents. The only pity is that their back-and-forth, because it’s a motor for the rest of the film, never gets time to rest. The flaws that Leilani and Jibran must learn to correct or compromise on are all fairly surface-level, and the chance to more deeply explore a deteriorating relationship and the difficulties inherent in being with someone are secondary to generating laughs. The brief interludes in which the characters realize just how crazy things are getting don’t last long enough.
But The Lovebirds delivers where it matters: The jokes are funny and manifold, and Nanjiani and Rae are an undeniably appealing pair. Abrams and Gall’s script is funnier than the Netflix original romcoms that have tried for something similar (Murder Mystery, Ibiza), and the film’s coda, though perhaps a little groan-worthy, puts a neat cap on one of the movie’s running gags. On top of that, The Lovebirds manages a feat that’s rare for even mainstream comedies: it’s sharp enough to make you laugh out loud.
The Lovebirds is streaming on Netflix now.