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“The Lovebirds” finds new humor in old territory

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Courtesy of Netflix and Paramount Pictures
2.5stars
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Paul Sparks, Moses Storm
Director: Michael Showalter
Release Date: May 22, 2020

Who needs marriage counseling when you can just be chased by a dirty cop?

I mean, marriage counseling is expensive. But getting involved in an unexpected criminal conspiracy, that’s free. And if Hollywood is believed, it’s a surefire way to jumpstart a relationship gone wrong.

Don’t believe me? Watch “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” Or “The Out-of-Towners.” Or “Date Night.” Or “Game Night.” Or “Murder Mystery.” Or you could just hop over to Netflix and watch their latest acquisition from Paramount, “The Lovebirds.”

Clearly, “The Lovebirds” is traveling some well-trod ground. But none of the films listed above have really been about the plot – they’ve just been vehicles for the comedic chemistry of their leads. And as long as the stars are well-matched, this template usually guarantees a giggle or two.

And so it is with “The Lovebirds.” The jokes are slight, and the plot is inconsequential, but the chemistry between stars Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani is electric. And if that isn’t quite enough to help the film overcome its narrative faults, it is more than enough to power a spry 90-minute comedy.

THE LOVEBIRDS
Courtesy of Netflix and Paramount Pictures

Rae and Nanjiani are Leilani and Jibran, a couple whose relationship is on the rocks after four years. A seemingly silly dispute about whether the couple should compete as a team on “The Amazing Race” reveals unexpected rifts.

“We need to be on the same page,” Jibran says. “I feel like I’m on one page of the book, and you’re like reading a magazine.”

Guess it’s time for some therapy via criminal conspiracy, huh?

I won’t spend a lot of time outlining the conspiracy -it has something to do with dirty cops, blackmail and a sex cult- largely because the film itself doesn’t belabor it. Even more so than in other films in this genre, the plot exists mainly as a joke delivery device.

A lot of those jokes work well enough, although they provide more mild chuckles than full-out belly laughs.

Nanjiani has some fun stream-of-consciousness monologues about milkshakes and cigarette lighters, and Rae has a couple of solid one-liners.

When putting down her filmmaker boyfriend’s career choices: “Documentaries are just reality shows nobody watches!”

For all the physical comedy bits, the comedic centerpiece may be the duo’s patter during the interrogation of a frat boy (Moses Storm).

“Keep talking, but also shut the fuck up!”

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Courtesy of Netflix and Paramount Pictures

Director Michael Showalter also directed Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” and there is little of that film’s emotional heft in “The Lovebirds.” But Showalter is smart enough to sneak in some social commentary by using his big bad (Paul Sparks) to critique society’s treatment of our police force and slyly acknowledging the racism that Leilani and Jibran face every day.

At one point, they run into a cop that they’re sure is on to them. Turns out he isn’t.

“Oh, he’s just a regular racist. Thank God!”

Nanjiani and Rae are charming enough that it’s easy to forget that none of the supporting cast is given much to do. Sparks makes for a bland baddie, for example, and talented folks like Anna Camp and Kyle Bornheimer pop in for cameos before disappearing entirely. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for a film like “Date Night,” which had the sense to fill its stock plot with ace character actors like Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson and Ray Liotta.

THE LOVEBIRDS
Courtesy of Netflix and Paramount Pictures

The plot of “The Lovebirds” is downright incomprehensible at times. The film’s New Orleans setting conveys little of what makes that city so special and unique. The jokes could have been both more frequent and more funny.

But the whole enterprise moves quickly enough that you never have to linger on the bad bits. If you’re not enjoying a particular set piece, odds are you won’t have to wait for long.

“The Lovebirds” (rated R for sexual content, language throughout and some violence) was originally scheduled for a theatrical release last month before moving to Netflix, and the streamer is really a good fit for the film.

Because “The Lovebirds” is pretty much the platonic ideal of a Netflix movie- silly and slight, but also charming and funny enough that it is never a total write-off.

And if it doesn’t make for as romantic a date night as being chased by a dirty cop, it might just be the next best thing.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

 

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