Netflix’s The Lovebirds Is a Bad Romance
You know how it goes. A couple gets enmeshed, somehow, in a scheme that’s way over their heads: a brutal murder, a congressman’s secret, a masked, ritualistic sex cult with spoofy shades of Eyes Wide Shut. Any excuse for a costume change.
How did tire treads from the couples’ truck wind up permanently embedded in the skull of a lowly bike messenger? Why is Kumail Nanjiani covered in blood? Who knows! The mystery at the center of The Lovebirds—the new Netflix comedy-mystery starring Nanjiani as Jibran and Issa Rae as Leilani—is too outlandish for the couple to go to the cops with their story. They inevitably dig themselves into an ever deeper pile of shit. If only it were better shit.
Often when the genres of comedy and mystery are forced to arm-wrestle for the span of an entire movie, comedy wins. Good mysteries are hard to find, great capers are nearly extinct, and even mediocre comedy has a funny way of obviating every other genre it touches, so long as we laugh a little.
The Lovebirds—directed with minimal personality by Michael Showalter and written with minimal wit by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall—isn’t really funny, so there’s its first problem. Rae and Nanjiani make an effort, largely coasting on their ample personalities, and the movie gives them time to remind us of those personalities without really give them anything interesting to do.
Except, maybe, in the beginning. The movie starts with the couple’s first morning after, a sleepover that segues uninterrupted into a full-on second date (or extended second date) that’s all cutesy quips, long walks, a montage of get-to-know-you. Cut to four years later. They’re a couple, they’re at each others’ throats, passive aggression is running high, and for some reason, they’re disagreeing over whether they should try to land spots on The Amazing Race. We jump from the day Leilani and Jibran became a “thing” to the day they’ve decided to call it quits. He thinks she’s vain; she thinks he’s a failure.
If only some adventure, some rush of excitement—the kind of danger that can get a couple horny for each other again—were to overtake them. Enter the bike messenger, the spooky cult sex, Anna Camp doing Southern camp, Paul Sparks terrorizing people with his reckless attitude and 5 o’clock shadow—you get the idea. The vestiges of a screwball comedy are buried in here, somewhere, waiting to be liberated.
Does the story go off the rails? It’s kind of you to assume there were rails to begin with. But it may be more accurate to say that the movie is what it is. The Lovebirds has the usual hijinks sprinkled with up-to-the-minute slices of life: words like “fuckboy” (and the requisite “Did I say that right?”), scenes in Lyfts (turnabout for Nanjiani, who played an Uber driver named Stu in, yes, Stuber). This is a story that practically requires sexual chemistry—but since there is none, we get the usual rigamarole of jealous insecurity, the sudden realization that an ex-girlfriend really is beautiful, a Katy Perry sing-a-long.
So get your checklists out and enjoy, or try to. Rae and Nanjiani are charismatic stars whose rise has been nice to watch—especially Rae, whose quick advancement from YouTube to the Netflix screen is impressive. Neither of them gets to be at their best. When a horse kicked one of our heroes midway through the movie, I became a horse advocate. When the bad guy called the couple extremely annoying—even being held at gun point, they can’t stop bickering—I pinned a “Voting for the Bad Guy” lapel to my shirt. It isn’t good comedy, but what can you do? On Netflix, we vote with our views: it’s an algorithmic democracy. Movies like The Lovebirds are what we seem to want. So this is what we get.
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