The key to a good romantic comedy is the two lead actors being believable as a couple. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing or how outlandish the scenarios they get into; as long as the two actors have great chemistry, the rest of the story usually falls into place.
The Lovebirds, which was supposed to come out in theaters on April 3 but was subsequently sold to Netflix following the global pandemic, subverts the normal expectations of the romantic comedy in several ways. It’s not about a couple falling in love, it’s one about questioning love. Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are shown on an ideal first date in an opening montage, but the film as a whole deals with them four years later as they’re facing the prospect of possibly breaking up.
That potential break-up is put on hold when Jibran and Leilani inadvertently get into a murder mystery, with their car being used as the murder weapon by carjacker. Unable to prove it wasn’t them who killed a man, they go on the hunt for clues to the identity of the real killer, leading them into some very strange places.
Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and written by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, the film uses the bickering of Jibran and Leilani as the basis for its humor. The two constantly pick at each other, with their arguments getting them into trouble and out of it depending on the situation. It’s an effective strategy, as both Nanjiani and Rae are HBO comedy veterans who know how to elicit laughs.
The film is notable for putting two people of color as its leads and addressing issues specific to people like them in clear but light ways. Talk about racial profiling and the inherent privilege that white people have in the world dot the landscape of the film, but in matter-of-fact ways instead of in a social justice warrior way. This acknowledgment allows the characters to remain fun while still staying true to a certain sensibility.
Funnily enough, the actors’ romantic compatibility becomes a problem because of their respective acting styles. The two pair well visually, but they both act in such a naturally heightened way that it’s difficult to see them as romantic partners. That’s not helped by them being at odds for much of the film, rarely allowing the audience the luxury of picturing them in love.
The story of the film is nothing to write home about. The villain of the film (Paul Sparks) is as vanilla as they come, and the “crazy” situations in which they find themselves are rather tame compared with other similar comedies. The filmmakers either needed to lean more into the insanity or more into Jibran and Leilani’s relationship, but both are given relatively short shrift.
Still, Nanjiani and Rae have enough charisma to make the 90-minute film watchable. Nanjiani has overcome the burden of being stereotyped to become a bona fide movie star, with his next role being in Marvel’s The Eternals. Rae has written her own ticket in Hollywood, serving as creator and executive producer on Insecure, and heading up multiple other projects. This film doesn’t work all the way through, but that’s merely a bump in the road for both of them.
We live in a world where the difference between “theater” movies and “streaming” movies has all but vanished, but The Lovebirds shows that it can live in both worlds. It’s too bad that Nanjiani and Rae didn’t get a chance to show their skills on the big screen, but the film’s faults maybe make it for the best that the film ended up possibly getting more eyes on Netflix.