It’s hard to believe that something as crass as The Lovebirds (2020) is directed by Michael Showalter – the man who gave us the deeply poignant The Big Sick (2017). Moreover that it stars Kumail Nanjiani who is a hugely talented comedian albeit one that has struggled to replicate the success of his aforementioned semi-autobiography.
With a murder mystery premise and lovers on the run inflections, The Lovebirds is a 360-degree-curve round the solemnity and social commentary of The Big Sick. It’s also clunky, lumbering and misguided in its attempts to marry mushy rom-com sop with rather charmless violence.
Nanjiani appears opposite Issa Rae who looks galaxies away from her more mature turn in the Nicholas Sparksy film The Photograph (2020). He’s a documentary film-maker with a bad habit of not showing his work to anyone. The kind of super-secretive everyman who bores partners stiff with talk of “corruption in the educational system”. She’s an ad agency worker. Her greatest achievement being a body wash commercial based on having sex with an ugly man because she liked his skin aroma. The two promptly move in together after hooking up on match.com.
Four years later, the “lovebirds” aren’t so loving after all. They argue about everything whether that be if New Orleans or Hong Kong are “the restaurant capital of the world” or about the similarities between documentaries and reality shows. “You make documentaries! Those are just reality shows that no one watches!” spits Rae’s Leilani in a heated bedroom argument that mimics Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019). With quizzical finger-wagging, Nanjiani’s Jibran muses that “documentaries are not reality shows…Documentaries are reality”.
Driving to dinner one evening, they have another fight about whether they’d win ‘The Amazing Race’. A hot-headed exchange that declares an end to their relationship. For mere seconds, there is deep melancholia in both their eyes as they realize the extent of their prospective break-up. Melancholia that comes crashing into the windscreen when Jibran accidentally hits a cyclist. Suddenly this hapless couple’s life is quite literally thrown upside down.
Claiming to be a cop, a mustached bloke (Paul Sparks) hops into the driver’s seat and repeatedly runs over the still-living cyclist. All before doing a runner and leaving Jibran and Leilani at the scene of the crime. In an instant, the duo become prime suspects in a homicide case.
Now they must run for their lives across the uncompromising landscape of the American deep south. On the journey, the couple encounter a blonde seductress (Anna Camp) tying them to chairs and engaging them in very unique forms of torture. This is followed by infiltration of an occult secret community – Sacrarium – whose crow masks and nude dancing rituals appear to have walked off the set of The Wicker Man (1973). Meanwhile the cult’s red-cloaked leader sounds a bit like Google Translate speaking Icelandic!
There’s a light echo of Queen and Slim (2020) about two fugitives in love and on the run from the law. However, The Lovebirds has neither the polemic passion of Melina Matsoukas’s incendiary drama nor its electrifying star chemistry.
Nanjiani performs at about 25% voltage of what’s needed or at least certainly what I wanted to lift the drama. He’s a fantastically deadpan presence who brought a lump to my throat in The Big Sick’s phone call scene. It’s a pity then this script gives him precious little to work with. Under Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall’s slack writing, this usually disciplined performer regresses into a farcical showiness last seen in the sub-buddy cop antics of Stuber (2019).
“You think about your grandma on that furry beanbag!” Nanjiani screams while interrogating a clueless frat boy sitting on a beanbag. He says all this at ear-crunching 180 decibels accompanied by an unbearable assortment of lip-pouting, eyeball-gurning and head-twittering. The effect is equivalent to being trapped in a room with a coked-out stand-up comic having way more fun than his audience. Meanwhile Rae is required to have big, braided hair, wear ridiculously short skirts and convulsively jitter enough to give Anne Hathaway a run for her jitteriness.
Some banter is to be had from the pair’s constant bickering about the definition of “f***boy”, the spontaneity of orgies and pretensions of calling a fire exit a “catwalk”. However I hesitate to call this sexual tension. For all their talk of “I love you”, there’s something weirdly incestuous about Kumail and Issa’s relationship. A suggestion accentuated by a yucky scene where Leilani strips off and Jibran turns to avert his gaze as if embarrassed about seeing his sister’s parts. The electral love of it all is made worse by Leilani saying “it’s not like you haven’t seen this a million times”.
Perfunctory performances and sibling incest aside, the worst thing about The Lovebirds is how utterly inept it is at switching tonal gears. All the sugar and syrup of its love story is embittered by macho, macabre violence. You’d never guess that from the movie’s marketing, which sells this straightly as a sentimental rom-com. In actuality, a car squashes a man’s head, a frat party is shot up, and most significantly, our partners-in-crime are threatened with scalding bacon grease, or being kicked by a horse. It has its funny moments, but it’s so uneven all-around that it’s hard to get into.
The Bottom Line:
Like many post-COVID-19 releases, The Lovebirds has come home early for digital viewing. When the quality is this low, it’s not hard to see why. Thank heavens for the horse! Sizzling stars aside, The Lovebirds just can’t romance rom-com sop with macabre violence. The Lovebirds is currently available on Netflix. – 4.0/10