Up until recently, most of the big-ticket films scheduled to be released in theaters that have been sidetracked to some form of streaming of VOD platform have been family-friendly works. But that’s beginning to shift with last week’s Capone (and there’s some debate about how wide a release that would have gotten theatrically) and this week’s The Lovebirds, which shifted its release date slightly and moved from what probably would have been a healthy number of screens to Netflix, home to many successful romantic comedies of late.
Set in New Orleans, the film begins the morning after what was clearly a very successful first date, as documentary filmmaker Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and ad agency executive Leilani (Issa Rae) exit her apartment and decide they can’t separate after such a lovely evening before. These two seem destined for each other, and they couldn’t be any cuter together. Jump ahead several years, the two are living together and fighting constantly, usually about meaningless things. This particular time, they are getting ready to go to a dinner party (remember those?) with friends; they literally break up on the way there but decide to still go. But during their drive, a cyclist slams into their car, and even though he’s clearly hurt, he runs away. Then a man identifying himself as a police officer (from this point forward known as simply “Mustache,” played by Paul Sparks) commandeers the car (with the couple still in it) and chases down the cyclist, eventually running him over…then backing up over him, then running over him again, until he is dead. The “officer” flees the scene, making it look very much like Jibran and Leilani just squashed a man on his bike. So, like in any action-comedy worth its salt, they run, hoping that somehow makes them look less guilty.
Rather than turn themselves in, the embittered couple decide to stick together and attempt to solve the mystery of who Mustache is and why he killed “Bicycle,” because let’s face it: it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they didn’t do the least sensible thing at this point. Directed by The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, The Lovebirds is only halfway watchable in the first place because Nanjiani and Rae, individually, have such inviting and enjoyable presences. I’m not sure I would swear they have great chemistry, but that’s difficult to judge since they are fighting for most of the movie, and even when they aren’t, they’re talking over each other at the least opportune times just to get a few extra zingers out. It’s funny, yes, but they don’t feel especially real as a couple.
As the police attempt to track them down, the mystery takes an unexpected turn into the world of the very rich, typified by a bizarre sequence with Anna Camp as a rich politician’s wife who ends up capturing Jibran and Leilani and trying to discover how much they actually know about the man they’re looking for. This is another problem with the movie: when Jibran and Leilani should be scared for their lives, they ramble and bicker when they should just be quiet and not annoy those around them (including us). They feel like a movie couple instead of an authentic pair who know each other inside and out. It’s frustrating because this pitfall is the only thing keeping the movie from being something close to special.
Both Rae and Nanjiani have had hits (The Photograph, The Big Sick) and misses (Little, Stuber) on big screen after massive hits on HBO (Insecure, Silicon Valley), so I’ll chalk up the shortcomings of The Lovebirds to not quite getting what makes audiences care about characters, even when they aren’t meant to be getting along. And it’s a big reason similar movies, like the recent Game Night, work a little better—we actually care whether these character live or die. By the time the film gets to a big reveal at a high-end sex party (think Eyes Wide Shut, but with almost no nudity) the bulk of the work, as far as character development and growth goes, falls to the actors rather than the thin screenplay. It all makes the movie a pleasant distraction rather than an action-oriented rom-com you might return to when you’re in the mood for something romantic and mildly bloody.
The film will be available Friday exclusively on Netflix.