Every laugh in the screwball comedy The Lovebirds comes from its two stars. Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani crack, snapple and pop with comedic chemistry, evoking chuckles that almost distract us from the lifeless movie around them.
The film, which debuts today on Netflix, opens with Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) falling madly, helplessly in love. He’s a documentary filmmaker, but she’s his equal in insightful observations on everyday life. They trade witty barbs, steamy glances, then numbers. “You just made a huge mistake,” he giggles while typing in her digits. It’s the first of many in a comedy that deteriorates faster than a toxic relationship.
Cut to “four years later” and Leilani and Jibran are in their own toxic relationship, arguing about whether or not they should try out for The Amazing Race. They can’t come to a conclusion, so they break up. Don’t worry, though. There’s still hope. On the way to a dinner party, a man claiming he’s a police officer commandeers their Subaru, speeds around New Orleans in pursuit of a bicyclist, runs the suspect over three, maybe four times, then leaves Leilani and Jabran at the crime scene a little confused and very certain they are now suspects. Yikes!
Directed by Michael Showalter, who previously directed Nunjiani in 2017’s The Big Sick, from a script by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gal, The Lovebirds positions its on-the-road premise as a series of obstacles that double as a series of opportunities for the couple to get back together. Like Date Night and Game Night, they have 24-hours to flirt, solve a mystery and clear their names. Unlike those films, The Lovebirds can’t spark a spontaneous energy.
Showalter’s background in improv is a big part of his directorial style, and he has some fun letting his actors riff off each other here. Nanjiani amusingly rambles on why restaurants give customers a sidecar of extra milkshake, an idea he probably thought of between takes, while Rae spotlights her radiant voice during a Katy Perry sing-a-long. But improvisational fireworks are few and far between. Instead, Showalter’s best material springs to life during fastidious, fast-paced action sequences.
Leilani and Jibran succumb to wacky hijinks as they run around New Orleans in search for clues. After hacking into “bicycle-guy’s” phone, they break into his apartment filled with frat roommates. It’s at junctures like this when the couple’s chemistry snaps back into focus. During a run-in with a roommate, Leilani goes rogue, calling the frat boy “Little Brett Kavenaugh” before slapping him across the face. Jibran eggs her on, telegraphing a change of heart toward his ex-lover.
The movie is filled with other wild scenarios, including an Eyes Wide Shut themed party. Yet it flounders whenever it gets serious, partly because it isn’t about anything, partly because Showalter’s breakneck pace feels out of place during smaller moments, giving his characters little room — or time— to breath. A case in point: Jibran tries to tell his ex how he feels in a heartfelt monologue, only to be interrupted by enemy fire. By the time they figure out what’s going on, dodge a trained assassin, numerous frat boys and an army of policeman, we know as little about Leilani and Jibran as we did when they first met.
None of this would be too troublesome if Rae and Nanjiani were less charismatic, or less committed to their roles. But what could have been a more than passable way to spend a couple hours is now wasted potential. It’s impossible not to think about how much better The Lovebirds would be if it gave its stars less birdbrained material.