The Lovebirds movie review: Kumail Nanjiani’s new Netflix rom-com offers 87 minutes of distraction
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Director – Michael Showalter
Cast – Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae
For some reason, filmmakers keep returning to the romantic murder mystery with almost the same enthusiasm and frequency as they do to remakes of A Star is Born. After Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in 1993, and Tina Fey and Steve Carell’s 2010 Date Night, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani offer a fresh take on a familiar set-up in the lazily titled The Lovebirds.
Purchased from Paramount in a deal that reportedly had nothing to do with the global lockdown, The Lovebirds, now available on Netflix, is a good film, and not in the ‘we’re in the throes of a pandemic so who cares’ sort of way. What it might lack in plot, it more than makes up with the performances of its two stars — the mismatched yet very relatable Rae, who plays Leilani, and Nanjiani, as Jibran.
Watch The Lovebirds trailer here
While driving to a friend’s house for dinner, arguing about whether or not their relationship is over, Leilani and Jibran run over a bicyclist. The bicyclist, gravely hurt but alive, gets up and rides off, as if he’s running away from someone. And before Leilani and Jibran can take a breath, there’s a rap on the window by a blonde man claiming to be a police officer. The man commandeers their car, with Leilani and Jibran still in it, and proceeds to chase the bicyclist. A few moments later, the bicyclist is cornered in an alleyway. Without any hesitation, the ‘cop’ runs him over, this time making sure that the job is done. Satisfied that the bicyclist is dead, the ‘cop’ gets out of the car and walks off, leaving Leilani and Jibran stunned at what they’ve just witnessed.
It is precisely at this moment in the story — the premise has been set-up and the characters introduced — that films such as this must make a difficult decision. Because it is exactly at this stage that any rational human caught in a similar situation would make the (wise) choice to go to the police and explain everything. But no movie can afford to have its characters display level-headedness at such moments, because then there would be no movie. And so the writers must contrive a scenario that compels the characters to go on the run, with the hope that it doesn’t come across as too unbelievable to the viewer.
Issa Rae as Leilani, Kumail Nanjiana as Jibran of The Lovebirds from Netflix.
And at this tricky task, The Lovebirds both succeeds and fails. Leilani and Jibran would have been just fine had they just turned themselves in immediately, but the reason why they don’t is rather interesting. “Look at your beard,” Leilani tells Jibran, played by the Pakistan born Nanjiani. She then proceeds to put a hand on her chest, imitating, as she says, a cop blocking his body cam before unleashing some racially motivated violence on the two. And she’s right, the chips are indeed stacked against an interracial black and brown couple whose car was quite unambiguously used as a murder weapon against a white man.
And so the couple, or former couple — their breakup was rather rudely interrupted — decides to follow a trail and gather evidence to clear their names.
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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that under the direction of Michael Showalter, who previously worked with Nanjiani on the Oscar-nominated The Big Sick, The Lovebirds is at its best when it’s offering keen observations on modern romance, and not when it’s trying to solve a crime.
Jibran has a tendency to launch into what Leilani calls ‘milkshake monologues’ — pointless rants about mundane observations like why restaurants always give customers extra milkshake, as if they didn’t measure out the ingredients correctly and had a few sips left over. “Why don’t they also give extra spaghetti on the side?” Jibran wonders. In one scene, after watching Leilani try and fail to open a door, Jibran jumps in. When he, too, is unable to pry the door open, she deadpans, “Did you think that was one of those men-only doors?”
The Lovebirds truly pops when it colours outside the lines, and allows Nanjiani and Rae to improvise, but rarely does it aspire to be anything more than just an 87 minute distraction from the usual doom and gloom.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar