Directed by: Michael Showalter
Starring: Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani
Available on Netflix
Rated R, 86 minutes
In the age of peak TV, with more broadcast and streaming content than anyone can ever hope to consume in a lifetime, there’s more pressure on artists to justify their creations. Where even a decade ago filmmakers could just make anything and get away with it (my first review for the Press, back in 2010, was for a Steve Carell vehicle called “Dinner for Schmucks,” which has since faded into total obscurity with nary a complaint from anybody), in today’s Hollywood of political zeal and social consciousness, there’s a heightened demand that the things we watch should earn our attention: Why this movie, and why now? “The Lovebirds” answers the latter question, but never the former.
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani star in "The Lovebirds." (Courtesy photo)
It’s modern, by which I mean it namedrops Instagram and Lyft; it’s fun, by which I mean it’s fast-paced; it even has some good jokes sprinkled throughout. But “The Lovebirds” never rises any higher than its premise, choosing dumbfounding paths of least resistance at every opportunity. At the end of its thankfully brief 86 minutes, it leaves us no better or worse off than we were before we watched.
To its credit, the movie’s premise is inherently subversive. It stars a black woman, Issa Rae (“Insecure”), and a Pakistani man, Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”), as a romantic couple on the run from a white police force. Having witnessed a gruesome murder, whose perpetrator used their car to commit the crime, Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) aren’t guilty, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they know the chances that the police will believe them are slim, so, seeing no better option, they flee the scene of the crime and set off on their own investigation to catch the killer and clear their names.
There’s just one complicating factor: Mere seconds before they witnessed the murder, Leilani and Jibran broke up. This isn’t so much a mystery as a romantic comedy about an odd couple relearning to love each other. As their misadventure takes them to dive bars and strangers’ apartments and secret cult meetings, Jibran’s pretentious taste and Leilani’s devil-may-care attitude both give way to a begrudging tenderness. In the movie’s best moments, the two bicker themselves into frenzies, only for the tension to collapse in thinly veiled expressions of affection. Nanjiani and Rae are capable leads with believable (if not passionate) chemistry, and director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) paces these moments with strong comic timing.
On the flip side, the movie’s worst moments put Leilani and Jibran’s antics into a room with other people. Faced with even the simplest questions, the two of them break down into prolonged storms of babble, whether it’s in front of the other murder witnesses, or college kids, or their own friends. This running gag always loses its punch before it’s over, but the movie nevertheless forces us through a mind-numbing half-dozen iterations of it. And that’s to say nothing of the movie’s visual gags—such as, inexplicably, a horse kept behind a door, Monty Hall style, to provide a well-placed kick to whomever opens up—which aren’t so funny as they are confounding.
In a quieter scene, Leilani and Jibran reminisce about their first date, about how the couple at the next table ate in silence; Leilani wonders if, rather than suggesting profound unhappiness, the other couple’s silence was a sign of their comfort in each other’s presence. It’s the sweetest and most emotionally incisive moment of “The Lovebirds,” but it only emphasizes the lack of that same peace between the two of them, and the lack of fulfillment for the viewer watching them reconnect. Because Leilani and Jibran never change, never learn to listen and be quiet, they just keep gibbering and jabbering. All they seem to decide by the movie’s end is that they could both do worse.
The result is a light, noncommittal shrug of a movie, one whose main characters take a back seat to their own story (often literally—I lost count of how many rideshares Leilani and Jibran take between points of interest in their investigation). Their romance becomes perfunctory, less something to root for than something to settle for. Sure, sometimes predictable movies are comforting, but “The Lovebirds” mostly reminds us that, in the streaming era, we wouldn’t have to look far for something better to watch.
Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.