‘The Lovebirds’ Is a Delight—and Proves Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani Are Major Stars
At this point in quarantine, who isn’t craving a rom-com with incredibly appealing leads to giggle at, swoon over, and let its “this just makes me feel good” vibes wash over them?
The South by Southwest Film Festival is known for launching big, raunchy, mass-appealing comedies. As in, like, your favorite comedies: Spy, Bridesmaids, Trainwreck, 21 Jump Street, Neighbors, I Love You Man, and even some you slept on a little but then saw on a plane and finally started spreading the word about, like Long Shot and Booksmart, hands-down the two best comedies of last year.
The Quarantine Film Festival, by contrast, is known for launching...Trolls World Tour.
So I'm extremely grateful that a film that should’ve joined the ranks of those raucous comedies whose buzz was born in Austin finds its way by circumstance to our social-distance programming—and not a moment too soon.
The new romantic comedy The Lovebirds, starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, was originally slated to premiere at SXSW in March, before the festival was canceled amid coronavirus safety concerns and movie theaters nationwide eventually closed. It has since moved to Netflix, where it will debut Friday.
From a business perspective, that makes sense. An original studio comedy in today’s market is always a box-office gamble, even when they’re great (see the aforementioned Long Shot), so holding the film’s theatrical release for if and when cinemas ever opened up again made less sense the more time wore on.
And the sad truth is that, even if it did manage to find a respectable theatrical audience, a movie like this might have only become massively popular after it began streaming on a service like Netflix. Now we’re just cutting out the middle man.
From an emotional perspective, it is a godsend. At this point in quarantine, who isn’t craving a new romantic comedy with incredibly appealing leads to giggle at, swoon over, and let its “this just makes me feel good” cozy vibes wash over them? Who doesn’t want to believe in adorable love and gut-busting laughter again?? Who doesn’t want to feel alive???
There’s a phenomenon at film festivals that buzzkill critics and industry players like to snoot on about called the “festival high,” where audiences emerge from energy-packed first screenings effusing ecstatic, over-the-top praise for a film that plays to a decidedly more muted reaction to more discerning crowds down the line.
I don’t know whether I believe in this, or if it would have been the case for The Lovebirds at SXSW. But the concept of “festival high” is interesting to think about in relation to a quarantine debut like this. Did I really think The Lovebirds was that good, or am I just starved for pleasant content and grading on a curve?
To that I say: Who cares? The Lovebirds is a delight, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are bonafide movie STARS, and we all need this, OK?!
It goes without saying that a good romantic comedy lives and dies based on the likability of its leads and their chemistry onscreen. Long Shot’s Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron: shockingly great together in a fantastic movie. Always Be My Maybe’s Ali Wong and Randall Park: so good together you forgive the film’s mediocrity. Yesterday’s Himesh Patel and Lily James: It’s possible nobody told them they were supposed to act like they were in love until the movie was over.
In any case, it doesn’t get more likable than Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, who are as great together as you would expect, or at least hope, given how charming their respective screen presences have been as their stars have risen over the last few years—Rae with Insecure and movies like Little and The Photograph, Nanjiani with his breakout Silicon Valley role and his Oscar-nominated work in The Big Sick.
They play Jibran and Leilani. We meet them the day after they first hook up, basking in the morning-after glow. Not to make too much of a point of how likable these two actors are, but it’s just so evident even here in the literal first frame of the movie. The morning-after glow is more like a blinding glare of charisma with these two. You can’t help but smile at them.
So you smile as they awkwardly decide to grab breakfast instead of parting ways, and breakfast turns into a walk around the park with a bottle of champs in a brown paper bag, which turns into brunch, which turns into blowing off plans with friends to hang out even longer. You would happily stay with them in this post-coital, honeymoon-phase bliss, perfectly content with your 90 minutes spent on Netflix, but the next scene abruptly jump-cuts to four years later.
They’re in their New Orleans apartment, clearly still together, evolved into the “petty bickering” stage of familiarity in their long-term relationship. After a few minutes, it’s hilariously revealed that their argument is over whether or not they would win The Amazing Race together.
A ridiculous, meaningless debate given monumental weight in the moment of irritation—something most couples will recognize—is merely the soundtrack for other snide remarks and observations that The Amazing Race discussion is masking. The argument continues as they get in the car and head to a friend’s party. Issues are brought to the table. They decide to break up.
These first two scenes are major rom-com tropes, coming to you in a one-two knockout. Directed deftly by Michael Showalter and, especially in the break-up fight, allowing Rae and Nanjiani’s talent for crackling, rapid-fast line delivery to shine, they’re done impeccably.
The meet-cute is as lovely and romantic as you crave in things like these. The break-up builds up with jabs of ace comedy dialogue. When Jibran tells Leilani her party dress is “fun,” she recoils: “What am I, Chuck E. Cheese?” He quickly saves himself: “But sexy. Fuck E. Cheese.” So good. But then the truth bombs start dropping, ending with an exchange that lands like a sucker punch to the heart. “I don’t want to be with someone who is so fucking shallow,” he tells her. “And I don’t want to be with someone who is so satisfied with being a failure,” she sighs back.
The relationship is over. They give each other a lingering goodbye glance of recognition. They hit a bicyclist with their car.
Yes, very quickly, this movie takes a turn.
They freak out and rush to his side. Dazed, the injured cyclist gets up and pedals away, ignoring their calls that he should go to the hospital. Another man runs up and says he’s a cop, the cyclist is a criminal, and they need to chase him with their car. The mystery man hops in the driver’s seat, catches up to the cyclist, runs him over multiple teams, and then flees the crime scene.
Jibran and Leilani don’t know what to do. Two bystanders come up and accuse them of killing the cyclist. It certainly looks like they did it. So they flee, too.
The Lovebirds, you see, is not a falling-in-love rom-com, but a falling-back-in-love one. It belongs to the subset of the genre dedicated to fated lovers rekindling their spark before it’s too late, usually with the help of outlandish, unrealistic circumstances—aka being on the lam for murder—to help lighten things up.
It’s a superior version of what Date Night attempted with Tina Fey and Steve Carell a decade ago, relying on the charm of its well-liked leads to earn laughs through a series of outrageous set pieces. Two normal people in over their heads throughout a night filled with dangerous crime, growing closer together while doing it.
The high-concept nature of it all lends itself to comedy, and for Rae and Nanjiani to shine. He has his stammering monologues obsessing over mundane life curiosities, like the farce of the extra metal container that’s always served with milkshakes. She has her carefully calibrated orchestra of mumbling sarcastic asides under her breath interrupted with the occasional loud, confident outbursts at inopportune, embarrassing moments.
Rae made her name early in her career as the “awkward black girl.” Nanjiani was the nerdy Pakistani immigrant. In The Lovebirds, they’re total babes, but the remnants of those personalities are the kind of amusing grace notes that ensure you’ll giggle pleasantly through 90 minutes or so of a very enjoyable Netflix movie.
I’m not sure anyone would venture that The Lovebirds is a masterpiece of any sort, or that it’s reinvented any kind of wheel when it comes to the hallowed bastion of romantic comedies. (Though there is certainly significance in the film having interracial minority rom-com leads, in that it brings us closer to a detail like that one day being the norm and therefore insignificant.)
But I am certain that all who watch will find the film delightful, which is frankly all that any of us need and certainly deserve right now.