“With so much to appreciate in the two leads’s abilities and their chemistry, there’s always a baseline of enjoyability and admiration for their skill which carries through, even with the caveat that the script doesn’t rise to meet them.”
by Ken Bakely
One doesn’t come away from Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds with any particular appreciation for its scripting, which is fairly quotidian, or even its sense of pace or direction, which is middling but never outstanding. However, there is a great joy in watching the film for its stars, Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, who both bring a brilliantly dynamic energy to the movie and work wonderfully together. They portray Jibran and Leilani, a squabbling couple whose pending break-up is interrupted by a surreal and dangerous mounting of events, which begins with being unwitting witnesses to a murder committed by a mysterious man (Paul Sparks) who borrows their car, and fearing that the crime will be linked to them, go on the run. Not knowing remotely what to do next, they try to piece together why any of this happened in the first place, searching for clues left on the decedent’s phone to figure out what happened. But that quest will launch them further into a rabbit hole of strange and elevating risks; though, even in the depths of their strange situations, the two still find time to express their frustration with each other in petty disagreements over the minor and major issues that defined their unsatisfying domestic life at the start of the film.
For this blend of high-concept action and character-driven romantic comedy to fully work, it is essentially dependent on both the quality of the lead performances and the dedication of the script to find fresh and energetic angles on the subject matter. The Lovebirds’s single biggest shortcoming is that the latter doesn’t really hold up: Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall’s screenplay is, despite everything that happens within it, fairly rote and uninspired, with a predictable rhythm which only really breaks out of its rigid cycle of the couple encountering a threat, arguing, and then miraculously overcoming it when it suddenly pivots to a rushed finale which eventually turns into more of the same. It is instead Nanjiani and Rae who truly bring this movie to life in its best moments, and keep it from falling flat in its worst. As Leilani, Rae brings a steady and fully charming dedication to a character who contrasts sharply with Jibran’s neurotic and sidetrack-heavy persona, which Nanjiani portrays with an equally funny aplomb. It is a frequent cliché of film criticism to say that performances “rise above” a mediocre script, but the two leads here are perfectly cast and matched to each other, keeping us invested; in the hands of more poorly chosen actors, the intentionally out-of-place prattling of their characters in these extreme situations may have proven grating.
Similarly, all of this does amount to the feeling that The Lovebirds has the capability and the talent to be something better than it turns out to be, which could feel like a missed opportunity which undersells what is. However, with so much to appreciate in the two leads’s abilities and their chemistry, there’s always a baseline of enjoyability and admiration for their skill which carries through, even with the caveat that the script doesn’t rise to meet them. Instead, there’s something of a larger takeaway, or at least an observation, that can be gleaned from this. Here is a fairly substantial reminder that we no longer seem to have as many star-driven movies that are first and foremost about the talent, in which gifted comic actors can play off each other in a myriad of varied settings. This one doesn’t quite realize the potential that such a setup allows us as viewers in terms, but it’s hard to come away completely un-charmed, and we certainly know who to thank for that. The film winds up something of a case study in how the individual qualities of a movie can differ so greatly, and end up in a generally unsatisfying middle, albeit with some talented people undeniably doing a great job.