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‘The Lovebirds’ Review: Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae Are Exes on the Run in Algorithmic Netflix Rom-Com

Paramount only sold this rom-com to the streaming world after the pandemic hit, but "The Lovebirds" makes all too much sense on Netflix.

"The Lovebirds"

“The Lovebirds”

A madcap misadventure that starts with a gruesome vehicular homicide, ends with a parody of the orgy sequence from “Eyes Wide Shut,” and spends the rest of its time scrambling around New Orleans with two of the world’s most dynamic comic talents this side of Hobbs and Shaw, “The Lovebirds” sounds like $16 million well spent — if not a total balm for the bleakness around us, then at least one of this lost summer’s few surefire delights. Throw in a director who’s hot off one of the best rom-coms of the 21st century (and reuniting with his inimitable leading man) and you should have the biggest slam dunk the world’s seen since “The Last Dance.”

Even when Paramount sold “The Lovebirds” to a streamer after the pandemic scuttled the movie’s SXSW premiere and put the kibosh on its planned theatrical release, there was something vaguely charitable about the last-minute decision; it felt less like a studio cutting its losses than it did a studio trying to preserve a piece of the summer movie season. But that was back in March — two months and 100 year ago — before the near future was a foregone conclusion, and anyone who got their hopes up only had themselves to blame.

The truth is that “The Lovebirds” makes all too much sense on Netflix. Michael Showalter’s follow-up to “The Big Sick” is as flat and algorithmic as his last rom-com was poignant and alive. The only thing the two films really have in common is a winning performance from Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote himself the role of a lifetime the last time around, and elevates the sketch of a character he’s playing here with just the right amount of everyman anguish and silent alarm.

Nanjiani stars as Jibran, an aspiring documentarian who we meet on his dream-worthy first date with the less career-oriented Leilani (Issa Rae, similarly overachieving in a role so thin it doesn’t afford her an identity beyond “Jibran’s superficial girlfriend who doesn’t want to get married”). Cut to: Four years later, when we catch up with the couple during a nuclear-grade argument about whether or not they’d be able to win “The Amazing Race.” They can’t even agree on a restaurant for dinner, let alone the right path around the world. He says that he doesn’t watch reality shows, and she says that “documentaries are just reality shows that no one watches,” and yet somehow they don’t break up right there on the spot. The relationship lasts until the next scene, when he calls her shallow, and she accuses him of being a self-satisfied failure. It’s hard to come back from that.

But those words barely have time to settle before a criminal bicyclist smashes across their windshield and a mustached cop played by Paul Sparks commandeers their car — with Jibran and Leilani still inside it — in order to chase the victim down and then repeatedly run over his corpse (a sick and satisfying gag in a movie that almost never commits to the bit like this again). So maybe that guy wasn’t a cop, and our molting lovebirds just became accomplices to a murder. Not white enough to safely turn themselves in, Jibran and Leilani speed away with the corpse’s cell phone and off into a long, fugitive night that will force them to rely on each other if they want to survive their own high stakes, hyper-condensed version of “The Amazing Race.”

From there, the spotty and unsurprising plot unfolds more like a glorified escape room than it does a global relay race, making it hard to shake the feeling that Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall’s script never developed beyond one of those dynamite comedy pitches that gets sold on the strength of its premise. “The Lovebirds” careens forward with a desperate pace and never takes the time to make us care about its characters or sell us on the idea that they care about each other. The scenes that end with Nanjiani getting kicked in the chest by a horse (for example) don’t exactly find depth through action.

With Jibran and Leilani tangled up in a half-assed conspiracy involving secret political sex parties, and Showalter’s irreverent genius lost amidst a parade of lifeless set pieces that seem afraid of their own comic potential, the actors are left to do much of the heavy lifting. Nanjiani — appearing in a semi-shredded state that shows off plenty of strength, but still leaves him a few bulges to go from here to “The Eternals” — is mostly confined to a series of “be still and hope the T-Rex doesn’t notice me” reaction shots. But his implosive ability to spin an entire symphony out of that one note allows Jibran to become such an effective audience surrogate that some of this nonsense almost seems plausible (including a scene where Anna Camp’s southern-fried femme fatale threatens to burn him with computer-generated bacon grease).

For her part, Rae refuses to quit on the movie even after there’s no hope of redeeming it. Showalter might refuse to push this story to the places it needed to go in order to be worth telling — it offers less antic violence than the average TikTok, and hardly a whiff of the “what the fuck did we just live through” craziness that could bring a couple back together — but Rae leans into the stakes of each scene hard enough to convince us there are any, and she balances even the most life-threatening beats with a heavy shade of disappointment in the guy beside her (“did you think that was one of those men-only doors?” she deadpans after Nanjiani tries to break into a building she just showed him to be locked). Neither the tossed-off ending nor the “how did these people let that joke happen?” coda that follows can totally diminish the fun of watching these lovebirds start harmonizing again, but “The Lovebirds” is all too happy to embrace its destiny as a disposable movie in a throwaway year.

Grade: C-

“The Lovebirds” will available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, May 22.

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