'The Lovebirds': The Dynamic Chemistry Between Kumail Nanjiani & Issa Rae Saves A Subpar Story [Review]

How soon is now, is now, and the neon painted landscape strokes to the club beat. That night was more than a sweaty crowded dance floor your friends dragged you to—criminally packed bodies bumping, tossed together—searching for one another. A forest with one tree swaying in a different air. A glance meets yours—conversation follows—and your changing complexion is more than the Vegas drinks talking. The happenstance night turns into the happenstance day: anniversaries follow, squabbles, and vacations, too. But years later, the spark is harder to see and even harder to measure. In “The Lovebirds,” we never witness that magical evening when Leilani (Issa Rea) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) first met, but we do see their morning after: composed of an afternoon brunch and passionate kissing. 

Most romantic comedies conclude with a happy ending—they rarely begin with one. And for good reason. Fast-forward four years later, and Leilani and Jibran’s relationship is anything but perfect. Instead, infighting consumes their conversations, which means the couple will need a seismic event to save whatever love remains. Michael Showalter’s “The Lovebirds”—initially scheduled to premiere at SXSW 2020 but now coming to Netflix—mixes genres, romantic comedy and spy flick, and offers witty banter in an albeit lacking story.

The film’s first act relies heavily on Nanjiani and Rae’s easy comedic chemistry. The couple basically argues over everything: from whether they’d win “The Amazing Race” to their annoying habits, all while delivering brutal one-liners like, “Documentaries are reality shows no one watches.” With each quip, their love is apparent, but their differences are just as glaring. Nevertheless, while on their way to a party, a mustached man (Paul Sparks) posing as a cop jumps into their car, proceeding to hunt and kill a cyclist—then flees from the scene before he can dispatch the bewildered couple. Fearful they’ll be accused of the heinous crime, because people of color are usually presumed guilty by the authorities, Leilani and Jibran go on the lam to solve the murder and clear their names while saving their relationship. 

During their resulting investigation, their hilarious banter delves deeper; meeting a woman (Anna Camp) dressed as a Carmen Sandiego knock-off at a bar, and later choosing between whether the mystery behind a door might make for a softer punishment than bacon grease poured over their faces. However, while Nanjiani and Rae display an explosive personal dynamic, especially when explaining the incredulity of the events they’ve survived by delivering sharp double dialogue, they lack a physical comfortability with one another. In some of the more risqué scenes, they work around the other like a couple getting to know each other rather than one in the midst of a long-term relationship. 

Moreover, “The Lovebirds” slows to a crawl during the second act. The murder mystery isn’t clever, instead strung together through sparse clues with none posing any inherent importance. Furthermore, the couple’s initial fear of the police tracking them—which plays up racial profiling for laughs but only scratches the surface of its potential—is left on the periphery. Even the romantic comedy’s villain, the mustache man, doesn’t pose a real threat. The narrative relies on the pair bumbling their way through outlandish events rather than the couple’s attractive dynamic and the practical unexplored spaces apparent in the cracks of a crumbling relationship. 

Truly, “The Lovebirds” works best when inspecting the oft-quoted maxim, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Except here, that sentiment is tailored to social-media envy. Their happily married friends aren’t so happy, and the more successful person sometimes bears greater misery. Other movies like “Ingrid Goes West” have explored the phenomena in better depth and detail, but screenwriters Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, and Martin Gero intelligently add age as an ingredient to the mix. Because Leilani and Jibran aren’t pining teenagers. Even while appearing comedically out of place in their “hip” garish clothes, they’re closer to road-weary travelers warning of life’s pitfalls to younger couples. Indeed, they wonder aloud: “Is this the best that life has to offer?” 

By the “The Lovebirds’” the third act, which culminates in an “Eyes Wide Shut” inspired scene coated by a James Bond sensibility, they go undercover wearing a resplendent dress and tux. Though the comedy’s apex succumbs to tawdry action, where the villain’s less-than-villainous bonafides negates any suspense, ultimately, the couple discovers a new lease on life. And even if this rom-com never completely coalesces, Showalter’s “The Lovebirds” does ultimately deliver a worthwhile conclusion. [C+]

“The Lovebirds” hits Netflix on May 22.