Essentially Date Night with a saltier rim or Game Night without the precision or visual pedigree, The Lovebirds is another case of comic overachievers giving their all to save underwritten material about a couple that’s romantically on the rocks. It’s about as scattershot as you’d expect from the combined creative input of Martin Gero (creator of Blindspot, aka that tattooed-lady show you can’t believe is still on) and Michael Showalter, who broke through as a performer-writer on The State in the mid-’90s, co-wrote the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, and hit a career highpoint in directing 2017’s Oscar-nominated The Big Sick.
Here, Showalter reteams with Sick star and co-writer Kumail Nanjiani and works for the first time with Issa Rae, co-creator and star of HBO’s Insecure. Jibran (Nanjiani) is a flailing documentary filmmaker who indulges wild comic hypotheticals to distract from his own disappointments. Leilani (Rae) is a thinly drawn advertising executive whose moments of irritation turn incandescent in Rae’s hands. Lost in their own neuroses, Leilani and Jibran’s once-supernova chemistry has cooled to indifferent bickering. “Documentaries are just reality shows no one watches,” she digs at his livelihood as he poo-poos her dream to compete on The Amazing Race. They’re driving to another keep-up-appearances dinner when each flings a final straw. Jibran calls Leilani shallow. Leilani calls Jibran a failure. Are they done? Yep. Sure are.
They get a temporary stay of dissolution after JIbran accidentally strikes a bicyclist who then flees in panic, a suspicious grungy cop (Paul Sparks) commandeers their car, and the cop runs down — and runs over (and over) — the victim. It’s an unexpectedly macabre moment elevated to sublime comedy by Nanjiani and Rae’s attempts to stay visibly nonplussed for their own safety while registering appropriate horror. The cop flees, approaching bystanders presume Leilani and Jibran have viciously murdered someone, and they go on the run with certainty that the cops couldn’t possibly believe two people of color weren’t the perpetrators. It’s a shallow pocket of provocation that The Lovebirds ultimately hand-waves in a simple third-act resolution, but at least it doesn’t become something so insensitive as a studio-comedy version of Queen & Slim. (The Lovebirds skipped theatres post-pandemic after Paramount Pictures punted it to Netflix, where the film debuts on Friday.)
And yes, the script spells out that, for Leilani, this could be like The Amazing Race but with dead people. “Who the fuck do you think we are, Hobbs and Shaw?” Jibran wails in response to her suggestion that they try to solve this case themselves. “We’re not even a couple anymore!” But so begins a crazy-night concoction that involves sadistic debutantes, frat-boy blackmailers and a high-rolling sex cult straight out of Eyes Wide Shut.
That pop-culture similarity is surprisingly unremarked upon in a film that regularly asks Nanjiani and Rae to speed and spice things up with loud, and often desperate, improvisational energy; their confrontation of the frat boys in particular is a topical Mad Lib low-point. It’s impossible to be totally disengaged from performers like Nanjiani and Rae when their timing and instincts are often shrewd. But their best moments are either whisper-quiet (a role-play interrogation at a diner) or pitched at a level of everyday conversation; Nanjiani and Rae bring exceptional “yes and?” energy and chef’s kiss awkwardness to a ploy to unlock a phone. But enlivening stars and a setup of “dyspeptic personalities, dysfunctional relationship, dangerous situation” can only carry The Lovebirds so far. Even Nanjiani’s sorta-similar Stuber had some subtext.
Showalter is certainly capable of illustrating the ways in which stranger dangers can exacerbate someone’s own intimacy issues (see his excellent TV co-creation Search Party). Meanwhile, Sick brought emotional heft and hearty laughs to tough conversations about togetherness. There are feints here toward the stress of sustaining a successful relationship, the fronts we present to the world and to ourselves, and the difficulty of maintaining analog warmth in a digital world where everyone else’s grass seems so much greener. And for a few brief moments, the third act seems like it’s moving toward a refreshingly uneventful close, forcing Leilani and Jibran to solve the mystery of how to move forward together or apart rather than who’s blackmailing whom.
But then the bad guys laboriously turn up again, delivering reams of who-cares exposition and explanation. In lieu of specifically misplaced rancor and resignation, The Lovebirds simply chooses to have Leilani and Jibran confront the generic guys with guns.