Published on May 27th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani lead a familiar but funny new Netflix romp. The pair have chemistry in spades, but is that enough to sustain the flick?
“This is like The Amazing Race but with dead people.”
It’s precisely these blithe, throwaway similes that give The Lovebirds its clever but vapid charm. The characters, Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani), are a couple on the rocks who find themselves haplessly caught up in a capital-C caper. “Amazing Race with dead people” ends up being an appropriate tagline. And as they race to solve a murder for which they have been inadvertently framed, they not only find themselves in ridiculous scenarios, but also find themselves quipping about them constantly.
It’s relatable to a certain degree, until it becomes evident that it is one of the film’s only real comedic gambits. Let’s just say the film leans on it like a crutch. Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sick) latest makes up for its relatively paltry plot by doubling down on the “real-ness” of the titular couple, their frank and witty honesty. It’s substance is less so what happens so much as it is what the characters remark about as they chug along from one sub-conflict to another.
That strategy in and of itself isn’t awful. We’ve seen buddy comedies and romcom capers work with less narrative razzle dazzle. But the problem with The Lovebirds is that its plot still fancies itself compelling; simply put, it just won’t let go of its delusions of grandeur. Essentially a beat for beat rehash of the Carell-Fey vehicle Date Night, Neflix’s most recent turn-your-brain-off comedy still thinks it has some fresh punches to pull. But every time the characters push through exposition, it fails to be anything more than that. Whatever momentum the flick builds through the leads’ chemistry comes crashing to a halt when they have to address the conflict. We already know that this crazy night is going to rekindle their romance. We know they’ll get out this pickle. I actually found it remarkable how much they film couldn’t muster any extra creative juice to make me care about those stakes. The issue of whether they’d come through was never even slightly in question. That insipid flavor can be only be traced to the film’s stubborn assertion that it was.
And normally, that would be fine—comedies like these utilize pre-existing frameworks for a reason. The best comedies always know what framework they belong to and embrace the predictability. Take something like Anchorman or Bridesmaids for example. They know that you can telegraph its central arc from a mile away so they winkingly play off those predictable beats for laughs–they make those telegraph-able moments at least fun to bask in. The Lovebirds, more often than not, rushes through the motions in order to get what it deems “the good stuff.” And while that “good stuff”—the banter between Nanjiani and Rae—is sharp and endearing, and the cheeky commentary on the ridiculousness of their situation is abundant, the film never really rises above its misguided priorities.
A shame because there really could’ve been something here. As I mentioned, the two leads have palpable chemistry. For a film about a couple that breaks up just moments before they’re forced to work together to save themselves from being implicated in a murder, their rapport strikes a quite successful blend of authenticity and comedic hyperbole. Peppered into scenes are little ticks that provide dimensionality as to why the couple gets on each other’s nerves yet are also kind of perfect for each other. Jibran is constantly doing a Jerry Seinfeld impression without the vocal cracks, finding deadly serious moments to question the need for a second milkshake cup or a dashboard cigarette lighter. Leilani overdoes her exacerbation and sarcasm to a point where it retains its freshness for the viewer yet establishes itself as flagrantly tiresome for her partner. The two performers are clearly talented at executing material with a high joke-density with poise and likeability. And Showalter’s instincts for when to cut and when to let moments play out in longer beats continue to be finely tuned.
It’s incredibly frustrating that this movie wastes not only talented performers but also really likeable and funny characters on a caper that spins its wheels. One can’t even make the argument that this is a symptom of Netflix’s typical low-stakes approach to comedies. The Lovebirds was supposed to hit theatres before you-know-what came along; Paramount only recently cut their losses and sloughed it off to Netflix. So the movie has no excuses for being safe as hell. Adding insult to injury, it seems almost proud of the way it heaves its entire weight onto the backs of its talented leads. The characters’ sticky situation is rarely as funny as the down-to-Earth smarm that they provide within the confines of those situations. Littered throughout the film are funny lines that lack any real weight. Amusing, but in one ear and out the other, like a series of gags written on a series of bubble gum wrappers. I found myself laughing quite a bit yet couldn’t manage to quote a single line after the credits rolled.
I think Hollywood comedies have forgotten what makes a funny movie stick. It isn’t clever joke writing, it’s the funny and fresh context in which the joke is wrapped up. In this sense, The Lovebirds may have actually been blessed by COVID-19’s movie theatre boondoggling. Netflix is the perfect home for comedies in which characters say funny lines about uninteresting things. Audiences don’t have as much at stake when they turn on one of the streaming service’s films. The expectation on the comedy hangs in the realm of ephemerality. It isn’t quite so imperative that movies be memorable, because hey, you didn’t specifically put any money down for it anyway.
But as more and more comedies find their homes on streaming platforms and VOD, I think audiences will find that what they really appreciate about their favorite comedies, the ones that stick, are not just breezy jokes. What audiences appreciate are plot devices, set pieces, et. al that are unexpected, creative, out of the box. The funny lines characters say should prop those up. Not the other way around. Unfortunately, The Lovebirds is a product of this misguided listlessness. But as a member of that club, it could be a lot worse. If movies must be judged relative to their generic contemporaries, I’d say this flick is a solid watch. It will frequently put a smile on your face for 90 minutes while you sit in your PJs and eat ice cream. But then you’ll go to bed and never think about it again.