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Movie review: Difficult-to-follow narrative redeemed by well-executed comedy in ‘The Lovebirds’

(Courtesy of Skip Bolen/Netflix)

"The Lovebirds"

Directed by Michael Showalter


May 22

By Olivia Mazzucato

May 22, 2020 5:06 p.m.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are two of the brightest stars in modern comedy – pairing them together is an obvious winning combo.

The two play the beleaguered couple Leilani and Jibran in “The Lovebirds,” the first film to be released on Netflix after its theatrical premiere was canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The central pair unwittingly become accomplices to a murder just minutes after breaking up and quickly decide to work together to clear their names, leading them down a rabbit hole of blackmail and black-tie cult gatherings. Though the film’s story gets convoluted, Rae and Nanjiani are able to salvage the muddy plot with their razor-sharp comedic wit and hilarious chemistry.

[Related: Movie review: ‘The Half of It’ offers fresh perspective on what a teenage rom-com can be]

The plot of “The Lovebirds” starts out with an air of intrigue, but is soon bogged down with unnecessary complications and loose threads, becoming less a mystery and more of a mess. Within minutes, Leilani and Jibran are wrapped up in a complex web of conspiracy, having to confront an absurd lineup of foes – a congressman and his wife, a blackmail ring operating out of a fraternity and eventually a nefarious cult that’s equal parts Illuminati, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”

All the individual capers with one-off characters make for entertaining vignettes, but fail to tie together cohesively. The final plot twist fails to make sense of the jumble, barely registering as an anticlimactic reveal. In a film full of inventive quips and conversations, the finale is far from the most memorable scene in the film, which deflates a lot of the momentum the story generates.

Luckily, Rae and Nanjiani’s easy chemistry and awkward humor transcend the narrative jumble. Whether they’re arguing over the odds of orgy schedulers using a calendar app or intimidating answers out of a terrified fraternity brother, their back and forth feels effortless as they operate on the same wavelength of frenetic, weird energy.

Their palpable onscreen connection makes it easy to both believe the love between the two as well as understand why they’ve started to grate on each other after four years together. They might argue with comical conviction about whether or not they’d do well on “The Amazing Race,” but the conversation hints at the deeper emotional insecurities about incompatibility that plague their relationship.

[Related: Movie review: Despite its detailed animation, ‘The Willoughbys’ delivers an uninspiring comedy]

The two comedians also bring versatility and depth to their characters. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, Leilani and Jibran are falling in love, breaking up and witnessing their first murder. The actors take the fast pacing in stride, matching it with equally fast-paced jokes.

Though “The Lovebirds” isn’t necessarily a traditional romantic comedy, the movie makes Leilani and Jibran’s break up more than just a plot point – it’s a scene with heartbreaking gravity. The quiet tension that fills the car after another blowout argument adds a sense of realism to their relationship, making it impossible not to root for their reconciliation as they go on their adventure. The narrative arc of the film may fail, but the emotional arc is where the film finds its footing.

Not to mention, “The Lovebirds” is flat-out funny.

From the ridiculous scenarios Leilani and Jibran find themselves in to the one-liners Rae and Nanjiani scatter throughout the film, “The Lovebirds” never fails to earn a laugh, even in its most serious scenes. The easily enjoyable film is able to span the range of comedy by blending physical slapstick comedy with witty dialogue to produce a compact 86-minutes full of levity and heart. The film is in no way groundbreaking, but it puts Rae and Nanjiani firmly into the spotlight, demonstrating their potential for larger silver-screen roles.

The two transform an easily mediocre film into a fun, enjoyable comedy that offers a brief escape from reality.

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Olivia Mazzucato
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