The Lovebirds (2020)
All They Wanted Was a Quiet Night Out
Remember 2010’s Date Night? Yeah, it was pretty unmemorable, so I can’t blame you if you don’t. Well, Netflix’s newest action-comedy The Lovebirds shares more or less the same premise but substitutes the traditionally white Hollywood leads for more diverse ones — South Asian funnyman Kumail Nanjiani and black female comedian Issa Rae step in for Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The Lovebirds, however, winds up being is equally as forgettable as the Carell-Fey-starring vehicle due to its formulaic nature and cliched plot. It’s disposable entertainment at best despite solid chemistry from its stars, who are both executive producers on the film.
Initially set to premiere at SXSW earlier this year, Paramount cut a deal with streaming giant Netflix due to the coronavirus pandemic and widespread theatre closings around the world, dropping the zany romantic crime caper on the streaming service as a Netflix original late last month. And honestly, it feels more at home on the small screen than it does on the big one, as The Lovebirds cost less to produce than Date Night and lacks those grand theatrical set pieces synonymous with big-screen cinema — there’s one lowkey car chase and an admittedly amusing bit with a horse, and that’s about all the action that we get.
The film follows New Orleans couple Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani), who works as a documentary filmmaker, and Leilani (Issa Rae), a successful advertising executive, whose relationship seems to be on the rocks after spending four long years together — we witness their instant dreamy hook up in the movie’s prologue, where it’s love at first sight. Although the pair seem destined to be with one another, things are far from working out. We see the two bicker and squabble about the littlest of things (Instagram, spontaneity, and freaky sex), which turn into full-blown arguments, as they prepare to attend a dinner party at a friend’s house later that evening. There’s some funny stuff here about Leilani wanting to sign them both up as contestants on the reality game show The Amazing Race, but the pair can’t agree on anything, so a globe-trotting sprint for a grand cash prize wouldn’t be ideal given their current situation.
While en route to their dinner destination, the couple, who have thankfully managed to eschew marriage, mutually decide to break up — neither looks happy, but it’s a shared decision. Distracted by the sudden split, Jibran accidentally slams into a cyclist (Nicholas X. Parsons) who, bleeding and battered, picks himself up and speedily rides off. Jibran and Leilani get out of the car and try to help the guy, whom they name ‘Bicycle,’ but he insists that he’s okay, leaving his phone behind as he darts away. All of a sudden, a mustached man (Paul Sparks) claiming to be a police officer commandeers their vehicle, perusing Bicycle through the streets, informing the couple that the rider is, in fact, a criminal on the run. They eventually catch up to the bicyclist, and Mustache runs him down with their car several times over, brutally murdering the unarmed man. Mustache, who we know by now, is clearly no cop, prepares to waste Jibran and Leilani with a gun but bolts after some hippy bystanders see the dead body lying on the pavement and assume that the couple are the killers. Jibran and Leilani then have no choice but to flee the scene.
Panicked, the two try to figure out their next step at a local diner; Jibran insists that they turn themselves into the authorities seeing as they’re innocent, but Leilani argues that their far-fetched story and racial profiling will ensure they are pinned as the perpetrators — there are some bang-on truths about what it’s like for nonwhite couples, even if they’re played for laughs. Having stashed the murder victim’s phone, Jibran and Leilani use it as a lead to solve the crime themselves in the hope of clearing their names. And so, the twosome set off on a wild night across the neon-lit New Orleans cityscape, where everyone is a suspect, and danger lurks around every corner, our heroes unearthing a criminal conspiracy linked to a debaucherous secret society.
I’m probably giving The Lovebirds a bit too much credit, as the story and screenplay, penned by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, The Go-Getters (2018), is pretty run-of-the-mill — no surprises as to where this one goes — Jibran and Leilani, though having just separated, eventually find common ground and learn to love and appreciate each other again through their outlandish ordeal. Granted, there are some genuine moments of intrigue as our budding duo tries to unravel the movie’s mystery. The centerpiece is a third act sequence that has the pair attend a Venetian-mask fancy dress evening à la Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which culminates in all attendees gathering together to watch a bunch of eerily masked strangers do the dirty, a cult-like ceremony hilariously described by Rae as ‘some Illuminati bullshit.’ Unfortunately, flashes of greatness like this are mere singularities, and the film’s climax/ resolution is downright unsatisfying, the whole shebang ultimately amounting to nada.
What does work, and works quite well, is the pairing of comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, who have genuine fun with the ‘one crazy night’ concept, elevating many of the film’s implausible scenarios and predictable plot-twists with their over-the-top reactions, throwaway banter, and antics — improvised or scripted, a lot of this is great! Nanjiani is more than game to be smacked around like a human piñata, selling the physical comedy (he’s so annoying and smart-aleky sometimes that you wish the bad guys would just off him), while he and his co-star aren’t afraid of looking ridiculous, donning some embarrassingly awful costumes for a laugh. And while The Lovebirds isn’t out-and-out sidesplitting — it’s an occasional chuckle kind of affair — we are hit with some real zingers (I dug Nanjiani’s blatant attempts at trying to draw distinctions between what constitutes as a reality show, which he utterly loathes, and a docu-series, his bread and butter as an amateur moviemaker).
Sure, Nanjiani and Rae do most of the heavy lifting, but several of the support players hold their own. Anna Camp, Pitch Perfect (2012), makes an impression as Edie, a shadowy woman with a fondness for weird torture tricks, whereas ace character actor Paul Sparks, Midnight Special (2016), does what he does best (make us feel uncomfortable) as the chilling killer known simply as Mustache.
Fortunately, director Michael Showalter keeps the pace brisk (the film is under 90 minutes) and the focus squarely on the stars, letting them do their thang, which helps hide the sheer ridiculousness of what’s unfolding on the screen. As a sophomore feature, though, The Lovebirds is a step down for Michael Showalter, who really made his mark on Hollywood with 2017’s runaway hit The Big Sick, another Showalter-Nanjiani collaboration. The Lovebirds is competently helmed and looks cinematic enough but is missing the flair and ingenuity of Showalter’s former project. And although classified as light entertainment, The Lovebirds is a tad bumpy, tonally, some of it rather grim — one minute we’re witnessing the unmerciful killing of an apartment full of frat boys and the next our boyfriend-girlfriend duo are reconnecting via Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ in full karaoke mode in the back seat of a Lyft.
All up, The Lovebirds probably ain’t worth venturing down to the multiplex for but checks enough boxes to warrant a watch in the comfort of your own home. Considering the abundance of talent involved here, The Lovebirds should have had more bite, flair, and a clearer vision, the resulting film disappointingly mediocre. For a funnier, darker, far superior contemporary mystery-thriller rom-com, I’d recommend getting in front of Game Night (2018), starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, if you haven’t yet already.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner