It’s been almost a decade since Kumail Nanjiani was hosting stand-up shows in the back of Meltdown Comics and Issa Rae was an Awkward Black Girl trying to make the leap from YouTube to TV. The talent and charisma that got both of them noticed has since taken them far, but we’re still rooting for them—particularly when it comes to their new project, The Lovebirds. That’s due in large part to Nanjiani and Rae’s chemistry in the film, which is so winning that you can’t help but hope that their characters can work everything out. But the movie itself is also an underdog: Originally set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, it was one of the first 2020 titles to see its release plans wiped out by the COVID-19 crisis. Now safely nestled in at Netflix, the film is going straight to streaming, its wings clipped but not broken.
In terms of plot, The Lovebirds is nothing new. In fact, it’s simply the latest in a recent series of films, like Date Night and Game Night and Keeping Up With The Joneses, about a couple coincidentally caught up in wacky but legitimately dangerous criminal activity. In this case, it’s hipster creatives Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) who get pulled into a blackmail ring after they accidentally run over a cyclist with their car in the midst of a relationship-ending fight. Add a New Orleans location that isn’t especially necessary to the story and a dinner party full of judgmental friends (and one hunky coworker), and the Mad Libs card is pretty much filled out. The dialogue is the real star here—that, and the chemistry between the leads, of course.
The Big Sick director Michael Showalter re-teams with Nanjiani for the film—no surprise given that their last project together was nominated for an Oscar. He adds showy little touches here and there, like the moment where we pause for a dramatic tableau of a dozen or so cops pointing their guns at Rae and Nanjiani in an empty theater. Some of this panache is used for comedy, as in the scene where Nanjiani and an unhinged assassin, on opposite ends of an apartment, keep just barely ducking out of each other’s line of sight. But, for the most part, Showalter lets his stars take center stage with their rapid-fire bickering.
The dynamic between this screwball couple is half affectionate and half exasperated, and there are enough funny lines sprinkled throughout—a personal favorite: “documentaries are just reality shows no one watches”—to keep the laughs coming. But while The Lovebirds are sparkling conversationalists, as the plot gets more convoluted, the champagne starts to go flat. This becomes an issue later on, when the film wraps up its primary conflict early. That leads to a sluggish last half hour, which is a lot for a movie that clocks in at just under 90 minutes. There’s one downside of casting actors so charming you’d watch them order a pizza: Sometimes they outshine the story around them.