I like a lot of things about Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds. But it’s a dark comedy that is afraid to get too dark and a surreal romantic comedy that wants to be grounded. Confused and stilted it survives because of the talent of its stars as they struggle to rise above the film’s forced lunacy.
Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) are a couple who have reached the end of the road. Most romcoms look at relationships as they form but The Lovebirds looks at a couple after the relationship has frayed. Oh, they’ll be together at the end, no doubt, but still, I really dug seeing a couple re-discover themselves through all the manufactured chaos.
The premise is solid. Two people who break up, are soon thrust into a web of conspiracies, murder, sex cults, all while being fugitives of the law. It is a solid idea. The script by Brendan Gall and Aaron Abrams, however, keeps fouling the pitch.
When Leilani and Jibran argue, without any outside interruption, and it’s just two people who have dated for four years and know each other’s weaknesses and know where to strike to wound, The Lovebirds is riveting. Rae and Nanjiani have great rapport. Their arguments feel and sound like actual arguments.
Meaning they are petty, cruel, and deeply immature. It’s not just the arguments, whenever The Lovebirds stops trying to be funny and just lets Leilani and Jibran talk I couldn’t tear my eyes off of them. One scene towards the end has the two doing karaoke to Katy Perry’s “Firework” and I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off my face.
Abrams and Gall’s script has moments of cleverness and dark realities about relationships. Possibly the most searing being how most people are very bad at simple communication. But when the script tries to center on the shenanigans and goings-on the characters and the movie become grating.
Showalter is a director who has taken the term “the camera as a recording device” literally. His movies are often visually dull and leave most of the heavy lifting to the script and the actors. Rae and Nanjiani are up to the task, but the script is faulty, which leaves the actors on shaky ground. The result is when the characters are arguing about what to do with a corpse, or if they should call the cops or not, it feels forced and not organic.
The Lovebirds was shot by Brian Burgoyne, who also shot Other People, a movie that is also about ordinary people with messy emotions. But here Showalter and Burgoyne have car chases, gunplay, and interrogation scenes, and they all feel flat and tired.
Burgoyne’s camera is nailed to the ground who will occasionally be allowed to capture a nicely framed shot. Except a nicely framed shot is a poor substitute for a shot that actually moves the movie along and that’s the problem. The Lovebirds should be a movie all about momentum and instead is a movie that stands still to a pathological degree.
The lack of any kind of visual style takes the edge off much of what happens. Someone with a sharper eye would have found a way to make some of the more gruesome and darker events lands better. The tone is off and that drags everything else down with it.
For instance, the two accidentally hit a cyclist. The cyclist gets up and rides off. The two are then carjacked by a man claiming to be a cop and chases after the cyclist. They soon catch up to him and the cop runs over the cyclist multiple times.
Because of the dour lighting, rote camera work, the whole scene comes off as dead weight. We see Nanjani’s facial reaction, cut to Rae’s facial reaction, amplify the thud of the wheels rolling over the body, and repeat. The tone of The Lovebirds should be something like Game Night, another movie about couples working through issues while being plunged into the criminal underground.
The difference is that Game Night has a tone, a style, and a very tight script. Whereas The Lovebirds has no style, a very muted tone, and a script that feels like the writers were doing improv as opposed to plotting out a story. If The Lovebirds were just about Leilani and Jibran then it would be a much more interesting and complex movie. It would still be darkly funny with an incisive wit and would most likely have both Rae’s and Nanjaini’s best performances.
Whatever “it” is that Hollywood legends have, Issa Rae has it in droves. Her very presence has the almost eerie ability to turn any dud into a watchable and enjoyable experience. Filled with life and joy and a keen sense of comedic timing it’s hard not to enjoy any film with Rae, at least a little bit. Leilani is unsure of herself and seeks validation from her friends but in Rae’s hands, we see ourselves; a need to be liked and loved despite our flaws.
Kumail Nanjiani has a striking handsomeness to him that’s part everyman and part GQ. His delivery reminds me a lot of Albert Brooks. in such, that every line he delivers sounds as if he wrote it himself. Nanjiani’s vulnerability allows him a rare place in the leading man status, that of relatability, largely because of his own self-doubt.
So much happens in The Lovebirds, actually, that’s a lie. It feels like a lot happens but nothing much does. Because most for what happens is just an excuse for a funny scene without highlighting anything about Leilani or Jibrani. But the scenes in between those scenes, the scenes of the two going from one place or the other or changing clothes, there’s a sweetness that bubbles up. A sense of connection between the two that makes us sad they are broken up and makes us hope they will see how much they still care for each other.
The Lovebirds is a movie I spent much of my time wanting to like more than I did. But it can never make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be, much less what world it wants to exist in. The Lovebirds is neither awful nor great, it’s just okay, which in some ways, is worse.