If you have about 90 minutes to spare, “The Lovebirds” is a fun ride with strong lead performances. Originally scheduled to open in theaters in April, the COVID-19 lockdown switched the film to a May 22 release on Netflix. The screenplay was written by Aaron Abrams (“Young People F—ing”) and Brendan Gall (NBC’s “Blindspot”) and comes from a story by Abrams, Gall and Martin Gero (also of “Blindspot”).
“Lovebirds” stars Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Issa Rae (“Insecure”) as Jibran and Leilani, a couple on the verge of a breakup, who find themselves entangled in a murder investigation. A man whom they refer to as Mustache commandeers their car, claiming to be a police officer, and runs over a bicyclist, dubbed Bicycle, four times. Mustache flees, and Jibran and Leilani are found examining Bicycle’s body by some hipsters, who, somewhat understandably, assume the couple have committed the crime.
Being people of color with an insane story who fled the scene once 911 was called, Jibran and Leilani don’t think they can trust the police to clear their names. So, when a calendar alert for a meeting pops up on Bicycle’s phone, they decide to solve the mystery themselves.
The film reunites Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter from 2017’s critically acclaimed “The Big Sick,” which earned Nanjiani and his co-writer Emily V. Gordon an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”), Paul Sparks (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Kyle Bornheimer (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) co-star.
Overall, I think I would give “The Lovebirds” a B+. Showalter and Nanjiani prove themselves to be a strong cinematic duo. There were some things in the script I wasn’t a fan of, but I don’t think it is out of the question to float Rae and Nanjiani as possible Golden Globe nominees for their performances. They bounce off each other well and bring a lot of heart to their roles. Camp as their kidnapper brings just the right amount of craziness to her part. Her Southern belle accent is the only thing that convinces me the movie takes place in New Orleans.
Showalter’s direction ensures that most, if not every, joke lands just as it was meant to. If you prefer your comedy to veer toward slapstick, it might not be the film for you, but it’s not conventional romantic comedy territory either. The mystery is engaging, and the pacing fits. Sometimes in mystery films, I feel as if I’ve missed something by the time the crime has been solved, but in “The Lovebirds,” every link in the chain is evident; you never feel as if you’ve been left out.
My favorite sequence is when Leilani and Jibran head to Bicycle’s address, following a tip they picked up while escaping from Camp’s and Bornheimer’s characters. They’ve ditched their dinner party getups, with the exception of Leilani’s heels, for whatever they could buy at the drugstore. Nanjiani looks about as awkward as you can imagine in his gold letterman jacket and baseball cap. Rae rocks her unicorn hoodie and leggings, though.
The sequence involves the couple trying to use the aforementioned heels to break glass, calling a fire escape a “catwalk,” and interrogating a frat boy employed by Bicycle to blackmail members of Sacrarium, a cult of some sort whose role in the story is underexplored. The interrogation is the highlight of the already great sequence. Jibran and Leilani attempt and mostly fail to be intimidating, though the frat boy does provide them with just enough answers before he is murdered by Mustache, who had entered the apartment before Jibran and Leilani could clear out.
The film raises some important questions, too, like why do diners give you the extra silver cup with more milkshake in it? “They don’t do that with soup,” Jibran points out to a preoccupied-with-being-an-accessory-to-murder Leilani. It’s a nice moment of levity after the seriousness of what has just happened, and a great conversation starter in life, even though no one in my life has wanted to have such a conversation with me.
While “The Lovebirds” takes the time to ask such questions, it does so at the expense of focusing on what exactly has caused the deterioration in Jibran and Leilani’s relationship or how their escapades resolve their issues. The script provides a fairly good balance between murder mystery and romantic comedy, with scenes devoted to both genres. However, though the questions I had about the mystery were answered, the answers to the questions I had about their relationship remained mysteries.
The argument they have in the car about 10 minutes into the film is the catalyst for their breakup. All the subjects brought up in the argument, for the most part, return throughout the film, with the exception of their comments on marriage. Leilani had liked two friends’ Instagram post announcing their engagement. Jibran calls her out on it because Leilani claims not to believe in marriage, but she insists she simply doesn’t want to be the couple’s only friend who didn’t like the post. Jibran then admits to always wondering if she simply didn’t want to be married to him.
Getting this cleared up seems like it would be a pretty important factor in a reconciliation, doesn’t it? Instead, the movie’s epilogue cuts ahead one year to the couple about to win “The Amazing Race,” with no indication of whether or not they have made a decision about marriage. For a film titled “The Lovebirds,” it feels like the type of thread that shouldn’t be so easily dropped.
The backstory of secret (sex?) cult Sacrarium also shouldn’t have been overlooked after the police arrive in a deus-ex-machina-style save (they knew Jibran and Leilani were innocent all along due to traffic camera footage!), but you can’t have everything.
What you can have is a genuinely enjoyable hour and a half, with some good laughs and important insights into diner milkshakes that, in my opinion, rank “The Lovebirds” as a worthwhile watch.