The Lovebirds Succeeds by Staying Grounded
Breakups don’t always happen at a convenient time or in a convenient location. If you’re lucky, the straw that breaks a long-term relationship’s back happens at home, with time to assess, decompress, and deal with the emotional fallout. In less fortunate circumstances, the inevitable realization hits at a moment when you can’t just put everything on pause: you have obligations to attend to and people to see, and the dissolution of your relationship will just have to wait. It’s uncomfortable and it often ruins what might otherwise have been an enjoyable outing — and, in the case of Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae), it makes trying to solve a murder before you take the fall for it that much more unpleasant.
This setup is the key to The Lovebirds’ success. Within the first five minutes we’ve seen Jibran and Leilani at their worst — as their argument descends into increasingly personal jabs, it becomes less and less surprising that these two would feel they’ve reached their nadir as a couple. Though they conclude on the drive over to their friends’ dinner party that their relationship has run its course, we get the sense that while that could very well be true, it may also be that they’ve hit a rut and simply have nowhere left to go but up. These competing theories are put to the test once a man claiming to be a police officer commandeers their car and promptly uses it to run down a panicked civilian on a bicycle — after a disastrous attempt to explain the situation to a pair of hipster passers-by, Jibran and Leilani go on the lam, forced to rely on the partnership they’ve built over the years to prove their innocence.
The screenplay by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall foregrounds the comedy, funneling Jibran and Leilani through increasingly absurd situations that read like light versions of After Hours and Eyes Wide Shut. But director Michael Showalter — who broke onto the scene as the writer of the charmingly sweet Wet Hot American Summer — never loses sight of the human element, emphasizing the couple’s relationship at every turn, slowing down the breakneck pace (the film runs a scant 86 minutes) to allow the two to work through their love and their insecurities. Showalter isn’t an overly flashy director, but he has an instinctive understanding of how to infuse a comedy with heart instead of cynicism — though the script he’s working with here is less nuanced than that of his last feature, 2017’s The Big Sick, he brings the same sort of pathos he used to help make that film a breakout hit.
Showalter continues to exhibit an impressive touch with actors, including knowing when to trust his stars to use their particular strengths to make the material their own. Nanjiani and Rae showcase the unique comedic tendencies that have propelled them to the upper echelons of their craft in recent years, with a comfortably collaborative rhythm that enables both actors to shine in a true two-hander. But they, like Showalter, have a firm grasp on the anxieties and emotions driving their respective characters — despite the heightened nature of this particular genre, Rae and Nanjiani ensure that the characters remain believable and sympathetic and don’t get sold out in service of a punchline.
Even as the plot sputters in the third act — a common occurrence in action-comedies as a rush to wrap up the narrative often tilts the balance too far towards the action for films more comfortable with the comedy — the commitment to character by Showalter, Rae, and Nanjiani keeps The Lovebirds afloat and engaged. With two successful collaborations under their belts, Showalter and Nanjiani are building an impressive comedic relationship and have found an excellent screen partner in Rae — with any luck, this is a trio that won’t be breaking up anytime soon.