Michael Showalter’s latest comedy suffers from a hackneyed script that forces its otherwise-likable stars to do all the heavy lifting.
No, that isn’t the hook of The Lovebirds—far from it. It is, however, the thing that sticks out the most, and suffice it to say that that’s pretty random highlight. The starting point is something along the lines of Colin Higgins’s Foul Play. The approach is something much more sanitized in the style of Shawn Levy’s Date Night. The amount of improv, on the other hand, would give Judd Apatow a run for his money in how much it pads out even the barest of scenes. It’s fine that this wants to be a wacky, mainstream comedy, but the problem is that it’s too flat to ever get off the ground.
We begin with a prologue set four years ago in which Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are bidding each other adieu after a one-night stand. But there’s something there: a spark, almost entirely thanks to the two stars, that renders them at least somewhat relatable. They hang out for the morning; they get breakfast. In the present, however, they bicker like a married couple, and they’re all but officially broken up.
Alas, that becomes the least of their worries when they accidentally run over a bicyclist (Nicholas X. Parsons). Then comes a cop (Paul Sparks) who hijacks their car in hot pursuit, but… of course he’s not actually a good guy. (After all, it’s Paul Sparks.) He’s actually a crazy dude who murders “Bicycle” in cold blood, leaving the couple as suspects on the run. Thus begins a night though New Orleans in which Jibran and Leilani try to clear their names while keeping cool. Also, this night is only 81 minutes without credits. But does it feel like it?
Well, no, and it’s largely due to do with how much The Lovebirds relies on clichés. The story by Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, and Martin Gero has all the prerequisites for its subgenre. There’s a mysterious cell phone as a MacGuffin. There’s an underground conspiracy. Also, there’s an excess of diversions that should in theory give the story a farcical quality, but they’re too repetitive and saggy to give off any real chaos. The resulting script, written by Abrams & Gall, is much too scattershot to emulate any real tension comically or story-wise.
And that’s something that the director, Michael Showalter, can’t circumvent. He worked with Nanjiani before in the flawed-but-very-endearing The Big Sick. You’d hope that would help make the performances and filmmaking more in sync, but the latter is entirely at the mercy of the former. The Lovebirds strands its two leads, forcing them to milk the material until their own work suffers.
Granted, it’s not their fault. Rae has an easy presence about her that flows well between straight-laced and silly, and she does her best with what the script gives her. If anyone, it’s Nanjiani who gets the short end of the stick as the movie drags him through flabby improv that often misunderstands his strengths as a comedian. Pair that with the talent behind the camera, and there simply aren’t the ingredients of a dynamic comedy. Showalter and DP Brian Burgoyne rely on dim lighting and close-ups that undercut the nightlife and action. The editing from Vince Filippone and Robert Nassau does similar disserves to the comedic timing.
If anyone, it’s Nanjiani who gets the short end of the stick as the movie drags him through flabby improv that often misunderstands his strengths as a comedian.
Instead, the things to focus on are negligible. The clichés are there in spades, but at least they’re harmless. The cast doesn’t get much to do, but at least they’re there at all. It’s a camel of a comedy—which makes its ultimate release shift a bit more fitting—but at least it has one or two baffling moments… like a cameo from Anna Camp where she threatens the two leads with a pan full of CGI bacon and grease.
And don’t even get me started on the CGI horse that shows up a minute later.
The Lovebirds scrambles its way onto Netflix this Friday, May 22.