Movie review: The Lovebirds

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

When most couples get into trouble, one of the first things they consider is possibly getting some professional help.

It makes sense – bringing in someone with counselling expertise who has no subjective stake in the health of the relationship and the back and forth of who said and did what to whom can really help in getting to the heart of the matter.

That is, unless you’re Jibran and Leilani (Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae respectively), who after meeting four years earlier and falling almost instantly in like and then love with one another, are at each other’s throats on the most asinine of topics.

Take the near-to-opening scene of The Lovebirds, a film originally scheduled to premiere at this year’s South by Southwest followed by a wide cinema release, until of course COVID-19 intervened and these plans were scuttled (it was then on-sold to Netflix), in which the two once-loved up people are bickering about who whether they would win The Amazing Race or not.

Surely a minor issue in the grand scheme of things? Maybe so, but in the broken world of Jibran and Lelilani’s relationship, it has assumed Everest-like proportions, a disagreement that goes to the heart of their fractured disconnect with each other, the kind that usually dooms relationships because neither party is willing to admit they are wrong and no one has the inclination to see things from other than their addled perspective.

The end is nigh it seems, a situation that comes to a head as the couple head out for a dinner party with a bunch of close friends and they finally realise they are done, terrible timing, yes, but even worse when they hit a bicyclist who sails off their near-shattered windscreen just as a plain clothes police detective commandeers their vehicle and gives chase to the criminal.

It’s horrifying but also thrilling and exciting until the police officer catches up to the bicyclist, deliberately collides with him and then backs up and runs over him repeatedly until he dead.

Leaving aside the questionable issue of whether something like this should be played for laughs, it leave the now possibly ex couple in the invidious position of being fingered for a crime they didn’t commit and on the run with no sign who the policeman is, what the murder was about or how to exonerate themselves.

Let the fun and laughs begin, right?

Clearly that’s the intent of writers Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall and director Michael Showalter who have set Jibran and Leilani up for one of those classic, farcical, ever-escalating manic quests to prove their innocence in a situation where they are in way over their head and palpably unequal to the task.

The thing is, while the night does become very The Amazing Race in the demands it makes of the couple who have to go from clue to clue – the one ace they hold is that they have the bicyclist’s phone which helpfully keeps ringing – thus testing how well they might do in that kind of situation, the couple aren’t exactly habitually used to dealing in the murky world of society’s criminal underbelly.

Or whatever the hell it is they have inadvertently wandered into.

It’s a cool premise that looks to hold a huge amount of promise but for the most part the narrative momentum of The Lovebirds is almost spent before the two escapees from justice even really get going.

While there are some idiosyncratic characters populating the storyline and hints of a farcically desperate race to escape harm, injury and death, the story is paper thin, connecting the dots in the most halfhearted of fashions with every scene that promises a riotous cavalcade of hilarious, frightening misadventure not really playing out as expected.

It’s a pity because when they are being held hostage and threatened with boiling bacon grease to the face or having to flee the killer, there is ample opportunity for the film to put the manically silly pedal to the metal and go for broke.

But it doesn’t; well, not as fully and completely as it could have and should have and while it’s fun and amusing to a point that’s substantial enough for you not to hit “stop” or jump forward in Netflix’s 10-second bursts, it ultimately fails to fire on all cylinders.

Compounding the disappointingly lacklustre execution are some weird narrative conveniences that test the audience’s willingness to suspend belief, a requirement of many Hollywood comedies but one pulled so obviously taut here that you can’t help but be distracted by an ever growing list of plot anomalies.

For instance, why don’t the police track the Jibran’s phone? They know who the couple is thanks to their car being left at the scene of the crime and yet this most basic of things isn’t pursued.

Nor is the fact that tracing the victim and his movements and connections would’ve yielded all kind of sleuthing gold.

Even when the police do catch up with the couple, their explanation for what’s been happening all night is ridiculously weak, handy for keeping the narrative chugging along but defining even a remote scene that The Lovebirds has any kind of foot in the real world.

Sure, the film is a comedy a genre not exactly known for its rigid adherence to the grimly uncinematic stark truisms of reality, and no one walks into a movie like The Lovebirds expecting it to be some kind of real world documentary.

But usually the inanity of the set-up and execution is far better hidden in films like this; in The Lovebirds it’s all on open display, almost like the Wizard of Oz has pulled back the curtain and you can see all the behind-the-scenes machinations occurring right in front of you.

What saves the film and elevates fairly ordinary material to something approaching enjoyably watchable is the chemistry between Rae and Nanjiani who bring a cheeky vitality to their roles with their seemingly improvised banter zinging along with a vibrant wit that amuses greatly even when the scene in which it is taking place is manifestly underwhelming.

They are the making of The Lovebirds, injecting a jittery, panicked hilarity into proceedings, the kind of clever banter that is so funny that you will be laughing uproariously or at least smiling in a fairly pronounced fashion even as you roll your eyes at another clunky narrative misstep or poorly-executed piece of the puzzle.

The Lovebirds is by no means a disaster of a film, replete with enough gentle absurdity, narrative momentum and witty performances to hold your interest, but a comedy classic it is not, and while you might revisit the film simply to enjoy the sparkling repartee between the two leads, there’s very little else to compel you to go on this less than amazing journey more than once, a pity since there’s so much in the film simply waiting, in vain, for things to go right in a way that would justify devoting an hour and forty-five minutes to its viewing.

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