'The Lovebirds': Film Review

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Funny and fresh for all the right reasons.
5/22/2020

Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae star in Michael Showalter's comedy (premiering on Netflix) about a couple whose relationship is put to the test when a crime upends their date night.

At first glance, there's nothing particularly original about the new action-comedy The Lovebirds.

Driving to a dinner party, Jabril (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) have the kind of fight that would seem to hammer the final nail in the coffin of their now-strained four-year relationship. Then, in the wrong place at the wrong time, they wind up being the only two witnesses in the death of a cyclist — an incident in which the fatal weapon is, unfortunately, their Subaru.

And with that we're off to the races. The couple proceed to play detective on a 24-hour fact-finding romp around New Orleans; we laugh our way through a nonstop conveyor belt of punch lines. The Lovebirds — initially slated to premiere at this spring's SXSW, then landing at Netflix after Paramount pulled it from theatrical release due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — is a high-concept absurdist comedy that sits comfortably alongside 2010's Date Night (starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell) or the more recent Game Night (starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), another nocturnal whodunit. And with a tightly structured script and Nanjiani's and Rae's raucous yet down-to-earth performances, The Lovebirds makes for a delightful and unexpected ride.

Helping the film stand out is its modernization of the Apatovian formula that has come to characterize most studio comedies. Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) with a script from Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, The Lovebirds trusts its audience, and its leads, enough to avoid overwhelming us with low-brow silliness, leaving ample room for quietly reflective rom-com beats. The well-calibrated balance of these different tones and notes is what makes the film work. A farcical murder mystery, it turns out, provides just the right backdrop for an exploration of why long-term relationships can fizzle out — and why doing the work necessary to maintain them can be worth it.

Showalter is intent on ensuring that the humor is what propels the film, without sending it completely off a cliff; he relies on the choreography of well-plotted setups, well-earned payoffs and just the right ratio of physical gags to verbal jokes.

Nanjiani (The Big Sick, Silicon Valley) and Rae (Insecure, Little) both shine. Showalter visually grounds the film by repeatedly returning to medium close-ups of the two sitting in cars. Equal parts intimate and hilarious, these scenes form the heart of the film. Even if you don't always buy these people as a couple, their slapstick comedy hits its marks; it's hard not to root for this pair of adorable screwballs. (A #relatable moment involving a Katy Perry sing-a-long gives the movie a jolt of improvisational-feeling energy that's sustained throughout the entire pic.)

One of the pleasant surprises of The Lovebirds is that it neither makes a big deal of nor blindly ignores the fact that its Average Joe protagonists are Asian and black. This is not a case of inclusive casting to score shallow "diversity" points; Showalter sticks to principles of good filmmaking, leaning into subtext without drowning us in cringe-worthy teachable moments.

Some of the most amusing touches are rooted in funny-because-it's-true sociopolitical commentary: When Leilani calls a frat boy "Little Brett Kavanaugh," it feels authentic to her character rather than like low-hanging fruit. At the same time, the technical elements — including an unexpected neo-soul score — are all solid and in-sync, helping the film shift gears from rom-com banter (about the futility of marriage, frequency of sex, etc.) to darker, caper-like hijinks with impressive ease.

The Lovebirds is that rare smart-dumb comedy that not only expects the audience to get why a black woman and a bearded Muslim American guy would assume the worst about the police, but also knows how to leverage that truth for laughs.

The film offers further proof that sometimes the best kind of political commentary is no commentary at all. Offering interesting, flawed, well-rounded characters meant to read as black and brown in a comedy that's mainstream, accessible and broadly appealing — as opposed to "niche" — is frankly all the commentary we need.

(Producer MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.)

Production companies: Paramount, MRC, 3 Arts Entertainment, Semi-Formal Productions
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart
Distributor: Netflix
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenwriters: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall
Producers: Tom Lassally, Oly Obst, Martin Gero, Todd Schulman, Jordana Mollik
Executive producers: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, Michael Showalter, Ben Ormand, Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae
Director of photography: Brian Burgoyne
Music: Michael Andrews
Editors: Vince Filippone, Robert Nassau
Production Design: Clayton Hartley

Rated R, 87 minutes