A film review by Craig J. Koban June 4, 2020

THE LOVEBIRDS jj

2020, R, 86 mins.

Issa Rae as Leilani  /  Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran  /  Betsy Borrego as Reya  /  Kyle Bornheimer as Brett  /  Moses Storm as Steve  /  Jaren Mitchell as Bobby

Directed by Michael Showalter  /  Written by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall

ORIGINAL FILM

THE LOVEBIRDS is a stark reminder that the most prosaically scripted romcoms can be made all the more eminently watchable with two finely attuned and likeable lead actors leading the charge.  

Premiering on Netflix a few weeks ago after being yet another film on an increasingly long list that have had their theatrical release lives threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic, this action comedy is pretty much bolstered by the sizable and effortless chemistry of stars Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, who play a couple that has hit relationship rock bottom that now find themselves on the run after witnessing a ghoulish murder.  The tone and vibe of THE LOVEBIRDS seems derivatively out of the playbook of films like DATE NIGHT and the terribly under appreciated GAME NIGHT, with all of these efforts featuring couples on the rocks brought together by some dangerous criminal intrigue.  Even when much of THE LOVEBIRDS' meandering scripting does it no favors, we're still nevertheless left with the presence on Nanjiani and Rae to pick up the pieces and do the heavy comedic lifting here. 

The film has a wonderful opening sequence, set four years ago when we meet a soon-to-be-couple in Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) as they have an obligatory - but awfully cute - meet-cute and their subsequent spending of the night together.  They engage in flirty banter about why relationships and marriage suck, but they find a roundabout way to keep seeing each other.  In this nimbly paced and amusing prologue we see this pair at the beginning of a blossoming romance, and just when viewers think that nothing could go wrong for this duo a bold title card flashes on the screen to indicate the passage of time to the present, and when we're re-introduced to Leilani and Jibran it's abundantly clear that the spark of their early relationship has all but fizzled.  They even struggle with basic communication now, which stems from some incompatible career aspirations.  She's in advertising and dreams of being on THE AMAZING RACE, whereas he's a starving documentary filmmaker that she feels is a go-nowhere vocation.  On their way to a mutual friend's engagement party one night they both realize that their union is over and headed for splittsville. 

 

 

Of course, cruel fate, as it always manages to do in these films, steps in when Jibran accidentally drives into a bike rider.  Fearing they've killed the man, the couple departs the vehicle to check on the wounded bicyclist, but he amazingly gets back on his feet and proceeds to pedal away.  Out of nowhere, a man proclaiming to be a cop (Paul Sparks) orders Leilani and Jibran to let him have their car to chase the injured rider, and they quickly relent.  However, things seem to go south really fast when the cop viciously runs over his prey...over and over...and over again, leading the shocked pair realizing that this blood lusting brute is no police officer.  After narrowly escaping this fiend, Leilani and Jibran are forced to go on the run, thinking that they've now been framed for murder now.  This leads to a series of misadventures for them, which predictably gets more outrageously dangerous by the minute and - wouldn't ya know it? - they begin to rekindle their long lost loving mojo for one another in the process.   

Upfront and on the negative, it's awfully hard to not see the similarities of this film to the previous aforementioned ones, leading THE LOVEBIRDS instilling more than a bit of been-there, done-that  feelings in audience members.  Frankly, there have been too many action-thriller comedies to count that involve once thick as thieves couples that are now estranged and find themselves embroiled in their city's rotten underworld of crime, and THE LOVEBIRDS most definitely adheres to many cockamamie genre formulas here.  Obviously, no one watching this will require any kind of plotting roadmap to deduce where it's headed: It's beyond reasonable to assume that Leilani and Jibran will get over their differences and grow to love and respect each other again while trying to unravel the whodunit murder-mystery conspiracy that they haplessly find themselves in.  And when you really stop and think about it, the core premise contained here is fairly preposterous and just as contrived, not to mention that all of the series of unfortunate events that befall this couple in the initial murder's aftermath strain credulity through and through.  Still, THE LOVEBIRDS is aiming for all out madcap farce, so I'm more than willing to cut it some slack in this regard. 

That, and, as mentioned, Nanjiani and Rae are a pretty dynamite pair here, who showcase great comic timing throughout when it comes to their rat-ta-tat dialogue exchanges of scathing sarcasm that they respectively unleash on one another throughout.  Even when their characters find themselves on the receiving end of many embarrassing and nearly fatal predicaments that could be best described as sitcom worthy, it's the lead actor's abilities here to make you believe that Leilani and Jibran are an actual couple with a deep history that helps work out the film's multiple kinks.  Their incessant and colorful bickering scores a lion's share of the hearty laughs in THE LOVEBIRDS, and they also generate ample chuckles at their ever-increasing levels of stunned and breathless mortification at everything that's being thrown in their way while on a path to proving their innocence.  I liked how Nanjiani and Rae play smart and considerate people that just happen to make a lot of categorically stupid decisions through most of this zany film.  No one can migrate between soft spoken thoughtfulness in one scene to fanatical levels of wide eyed and frightened agitation in other moments as well as Nanjiani. 

Having said all of that, I still couldn't shake that THE LOVEBIRDS was a disappointment for the Indian star and his director in Michael Showalter, who previously teamed up of the truly superb 2017 hit THE BIG SICK (also penned by Nanjiani), which was a semi-biographical portrait for the star of one man navigating through a loved one's illness.  Now, THE LOVEBIRDS could not be anymore different than THE BIG SICK, and creators striving for change-up variety with follow-up efforts should be applauded, but THE LOVEBIRDS is simply too scattershot, ill focused, and aimless in execution for its own good.  For the most part, this film feels more like a series of SNL inspired comedic vignettes and skits than a fully fledged comedy with some semblance of a story.  Obviously, it's a joy at times to see Showalter let his stars loose to unleash improvisational shenanigans, and much of it is funny, but I was kind of left wondering why this script doesn't give these pleasant and skilled actors more to do.  And for as many good laughs as the film conjures up, there are an equal number of other instances that land with a desperately unfunny thud.  Some scenes incredulously feel ripped out of whole other films altogether, like a would-be uproarious moment involving the kidnapped and bound couple being threatened with either boiling bacon fat being thrown on them or a kick to the head by a horse (like...what?!).  And then there's the way THE LOVEBIRDS culminates towards an extended climax that goes on for what seems like forever that's trying to spoof and riff off of EYES WIDE SHUT.  You know a comedy's in trouble when it chooses to spoof a notorious scene from a Stanley Kubrick erotic thriller from two decades ago.  How very topical.   

I guess that I'm kind of flip-flopping hard on this one.  THE LOVEBIRDS has some silly momentum and fleeting moments of go-for-broke and mad absurdity, and it most assuredly is a better film than it would have been if Nanjiani and Rae were not quarterbacking the whole affair (plus, it's a most refreshing thing to see a mixed race romcom featuring two leads of color, something that's still not in as abundance as it should be).  Yet, there's not a lot of meat on this film's bones, and with it clocking in at under 90 minutes THE LOVEBIRDS never feels like a full bodied and well thought out action comedy romp.  If this premiered in cinemas I doubt I could wholly recommend it for a theatrical ticket price, but as for streaming it relatively for free via Netflix now...it's a passably engaging time waster, leaving my two and half star rating a workable middle ground choice.  But if you're a Nanjiani fan and are expecting the crowd pleasing greatness of THE BIG SICK or even the efficiently amusing hijinks of STUBER, you may be in for a letdown here.     

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