Movie Review: The Lovebirds
By Matthew Huntley
June 3, 2020
Sometimes short and sweet is all it takes (and sometimes, it’s all you need). That’s what one can say about “The Lovebirds,” a crisp and zany romantic comedy that, despite not being the most original of its kind, functions handily as a funny, charming and sprightly mental checkout. The filmmakers and actors present this wild farce with two clear goals in mind: to make us laugh and to make us like the characters. They succeed on both fronts, and while the screenplay shows signs it could have been more biting and inventive, the movie as a whole is fun and lean. This ultimately means “The Lovebirds” would have worked no matter when it came out, but when you take into account its release date — May of 2020 — its frivolity and economy become even greater assets (more on that in bit).
Perhaps you’re thinking a romantic comedy called “The Lovebirds” couldn’t possibly be all that fresh or exciting, but its generic title is actually an appropriate one. It opens with Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) parting ways the morning after their first date and it’s overwhelmingly obvious the two are smitten. Their faces glow as they stare into each other’s eyes and we expect nothing short of animated popping hearts to appear above their heads in the tradition of a Looney Tunes cartoon. They decide to get breakfast, then lunch, then go for a stroll in the park, etc. You get the idea: life for this besotted pair is perfect.
Of course, we know this is all just a sendup of a traditional “love at first sight” scenario, but we let the movie have it, not least because Rae and Nanjiani are so charismatic but also because it’s nice to see a mixed race couple on-screen for a change (Rae is African American, Nanjiani is Pakistani). Plus, we know Leilani and Jibran’s blissful beginning is bound to crash down.
That happens four years later when the two are living together and the stars in their eyes have been replaced by a scowl. Leilani and Jibran are in the middle of a shouting match as they lambast each other for their annoying habits, and these days, it seems they only want to do things separately. Leilani is tethered to her phone and social media while Jibran holes himself up in his office to edit his “social activism” documentary, which, he insists, is not the same as reality TV, although Leilani is quick to disagree.
On this particular night, neither really wants to go to their friend’s dinner party and the drive over grows especially vitriolic, with words like “shallow” and “failure” getting exchanged. Suddenly, right after both ask, “Are we done [as a couple]?,” Jibran accidentally hits a bicyclist (Nicholas X. Parsons). “Bicycle,” as he comes to be known, appears to be okay and swiftly picks himself up, but then another man, “Moustache” (Paul Sparks), comes out of nowhere, claims to be a cop, and shoves Jibran into the backseat telling him this is a police pursuit. Moustache drives after Bicycle and proceeds to deliberately run him over…and over…and over again.
“I don’t think he’s a cop,” Jibran says as Leilani sits owl-eyed with her mouth gaping. Moustache makes a mad dash and the once bickering couple is left alone with Bicycle’s flattened corpse. That is, until a wandering couple sees the situation and calls the police to report Leilani and Jibran as murderers.
In a matter of minutes, a night that started off as a hurtful breakup turns into an all-out “Fugitive”-like situation as Leilani and Jibran race around New Orleans trying to clear their good names. They not only disguise themselves with silly costumes but actively seek and follow a series of clues to learn about Bicycle, track down Moustache, and survive at least two hands-tied-behind-their-backs predicaments with people who want them dead.
As you no doubt surmised, “The Lovebirds” is more a high-concept comedy than a high-intelligence comedy. Not that mindless, mass-appeal humor is necessarily easy to pull off, and director Michael Showalter, who’s demonstrated he’s capable of crafting stories of the deeper, more human variety with films such as “Hello, My Name is Doris” and “The Big Sick,” utilizes his resources nicely, if not riskily. Once the movie establishes its simple but assured rhythm and plot, it more or less goes on cruise control.
And yet, Showalter and screenwriters Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, who forged their script from a story they penned with Martin Gero, seem hellbent on the audience checking their brains at the door. They’d rather we just sit back, relax, and play along with the movie’s lightheartedness than question its plausibility.
With a runtime of less than 90 minutes, “The Lovebirds” is primed to be quick and easy viewing. In fact, its conciseness helps sidestep viewers from getting too caught up in the idea it’s derivative of other comedies with similar structures: “Adventures in Babysitting,” “Superbad,” “Good Boys,” etc., in which the action essentially takes place over the course of one day and night; the plot uncoils so rapidly the characters don’t have time to breathe or really reflect on what’s happening — they just react, scream, run, panic and improvise; and everything gets tied up in a neat little bow with little explanation. All the while, the audience doesn’t have time to consider whether or not what the characters do or how they do it is credible, even in the movie’s own reality.
Do I wish the “The Lovebirds” had been longer, more pointed, and took bigger bites with its social comments, especially given its talented and diverse leads? Of course, and I think Abrams and Gall’s script illustrates it was capable. Take, for instance, one scene when Leilani and Jibran are sitting outside a drug store and a white cop drives by and gives them the stink eye. They think they’re made and will be arrested, but it turns out the cop is just “a regular racist.”
An extra serving of punchy lines and moments like this could have elevated “The Lovebirds” into something more clever, observant and memorable, but even if the movie does sacrifice wit for brevity, at the very least, it keeps us smiling. We may preemptively know where it’s going the entire time and that Leilani and Jibran’s chaotic night will inevitably end happily, not to mention reignite the romantic fire between them, but we savor it because of how attractive and likable Rae and Nanjiani are and because it’s all in the name of escapist fun.
I suggested the movie’s release date may unintentionally augment one’s appreciation of it. The reason is obvious: it’s June of 2020 and we’re in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in this particular context, movies as light and terse as “The Lovebirds” are especially good at letting us take a break from what’s happening outside, if even for less than 90 minutes. Most movies serve this purpose of course, but because this one was originally scheduled to be in theaters in April by Paramount Pictures but consequently picked up and distributed by Netflix amidst COVID-19, I thought I’d mention it. Its easily digestible plot proves all the more useful and appealing at a time like this because of the way it calms and reassures us that not everything has to be serious. We need silly just as much.
Watching “The Lovebirds” also reiterated in me the idea that our opinions of art and entertainment are contextual and variable. We still have to put it upon artists and entertainers to make something worthy, and I think “The Lovebirds” is worthy, but we also have to remember our degree of admiration or condemnation toward them can change. I’d be curious to revisit “The Lovebirds” during a non-COVID period to see if I’d give it as much kudos as I am now. Hopefully this is an opportunity that will come along sooner rather than later.