2017’s The Big Sick came as an unexpected gem for the year from director Michael Showalter. A romantic comedy about Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani playing a fictionalized version of himself falling in love. One that delivered plenty of adorkable laughs, heart-melting moments and fascinating insight into Nanjiani’s experience as a Pakistani-American. So when I saw that Showalter was working on yet another rom-com film starring Nanjiani and The Hate U Give‘s Issa Rae, I was stoked. The premise of a New Orleans yuppie couple getting wrapped up in an accidental murder sounded like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, that’s all Netflix’s The Lovebirds delivers, and even then, those moments are far and few between.
Truth be told, the idea of a romantic comedy starring a quirky couple swept up in a whirlwind of shady characters and criminal antics isn’t a particularly novel one. This premise has been played out in films like 2010’s Date Night, 2015’s Mr Right and most recently 2018’s Game Night starring Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman. So in terms of originality, the odds are stacked against Showalter’s The Lovebirds. Nonetheless, I came into the film optimistic and hopeful. Perhaps Showalter could carve out a fresh angle to the time-tested subgenre. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t. The Lovebirds is painfully predictable in every conceivable way possible.
From the moment the first scene establishes Nanjiani’s Jibran and Rae’s Leilani’s couple dynamic to their framing of vehicular murder, the plot beats are not hard to identify. A jaded, argumentative couple must now go on the run to clear their name and solve a murder mystery. The two of them are forced to work together and along the way, they begin to see the value in each other and their relationship is rekindled. Sound familiar? My issue with the film isn’t that it went with a familiar route. That’s fine. I take umbrage with the fact that so many of the elements that make up the film’s subgenre are so shallow and underdeveloped.
Part of the fun of a crime rom-com is the mental puzzle that comes with the territory. Together with our lovable doofuses, we try to figure out what exactly is the scope of the trouble they are in. Who was the one pulling strings? How are they going to get themselves out of this jam? Without spoiling too much, let me simply say that the central conflict of the film pretty much resolves itself. There were moments in which the film sets up disparate elements in an attempt to generate intrigue. Blackmail, scandal, fratboys and a sex cult. All fairly interesting stuff. Too bad the film simply hands you the explanation behind the entire murder mystery on a silver platter. Therefore, the resolution to the whole affair comes off as cheap and unearned.
This sort of manufactured, spoon-fed method of storytelling is extended to Lovebirds‘ romantic drama as well. The best way I can describe the film’s portrayal of Jibran and Leilani’s relationship is as if it was written by someone who thinks they understand relationships from watching couples fight. And I don’t mean the slow-burning passive aggression that rises into emotional charges via Noah Baumbach’s A Marriage Story. Oh no, I’m talking about 16-year-old highschoolers talk-screaming over each other.
When the lovey-dovey bits of their relationship already feels contrived in the first 3 minutes of the film, then you know the 7-minute setup for their relational dysfunction is bound to feel the same. That’s right, The Lovebirds attempts to prop up the entire dynamic of Jibran and Leilani’s dysfunctional relationship in a miserly 10 minutes. The most frustrating part is, I totally get why the two of them aren’t getting along but it’s communicated in the laziest and obvious way possible. As long as it gets the job done, I suppose.
Well, if The Lovebirds doesn’t offer anything new to the subgenre or bears any meaningful commentary on modern-day love, is it at the very least funny? It depends. Let me just get this out of the way, Nanjiani and Rae have both shown to be incredibly capable and talented actors with great comedic timing. Admittedly, their on-screen chemistry is the most enjoyable thing about the film. They genuinely look like they’re having a good time. That being said, the script offers them very little in terms of comedic creativity.
There are two main ways in which humour is derived from Lovebirds, non-sequitur jokes and bathos. So the way non-sequitur jokes function is through shock and awe. For example, two people can be having a perfectly normal conversation about coffee one moment. The very next, one of them could be bringing up the subject suicide through the most obscure of connections. The real punch of a non-sequitur is when lunges out of nowhere from a relatively coherent conversation before shitting all over it. One really great example of a writer and director who uses non-sequitur humour is Seven Psychopath‘s Martin McDonagh. The issue with Lovebirds is that Nanjiani and Rae seem to be in a race to stake one non-sequitur joke after another. Which eventually devolves into a tedious and prolonged ramble.
Bathos has become an increasingly common form of comedic relief in cinema. It’s when a character starts talking or overexplaining something in the middle of an important, dramatic moment. Their incessant chattering undermines the gravity of the situation, creating an absurd and uncomfortable space for everyone around them. Much like its application in films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), bathos is overused here as well. I don’t know when writers decided that overtalking and babbling until someone makes a face or tells a character to stop became funny. What I do know is that it is getting old, fast. The few bright spots of amusing slapstick and occasional clever improv are quickly eclipsed by the film’s insufferably pedestrian sense of humour.
All in all, The Lovebirds is a difficult film to recommend to anybody who isn’t stuck on a plane. While the film doesn’t commit any particularly egregious sin, its execution is utterly lacklustre. Trust me when I say, that you’ve seen this premise done a million times better in other films. Nanjiani and Rae certainly did their best with the material given to them. Sadly, that same quality and care were not extended to the film’s plot and characterization. Look, just go watch Game Night on Netflix. It’s a far more entertaining and hilarious experience.
The Lovebirds (2020)
The Lovebirds' premise is one you've seen a million time before, and done way better in other films. Unfortunately, Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae's spirited performances could not elevate the film above mediocrity.