Over the last few years, The Lovebirds stars Kumail Nanjiana and Issa Rae have come somewhat out of the woodwork putting together projects which have received massive critical acclaim. After his breakout role as Dinesh on Silicon Valley, Nanjiana really made his mark with the critically acclaimed The Big Sick. The semi-autobiographical story of relationships and race scored a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes which is probably two percentage points too low. Meanwhile, Rae began with YouTube fame and parlayed it into creating and starring in HBO’s Insecure, which explores the life of a young African-American woman navigating life and race amidst other wandering millennials.
Add to that the direction of Michael Showalter, who also helmed The Big Sick. While he’s moved in a “more serious” direction from his days on The State, there are still elements of that show and Showalter’s’ particular brand of humor in his more recent works. So, talent-wise, it sure seems like we are in good hands with The Lovebirds.
Netflix’s The Lovebirds starts as your standard rom-com. We catch up with Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) on her front steps the morning after a one-night stand. They spend a somewhat magical day together with relaxed and touching banter making it clear this is a relationship that’s going to stick.
Then The Lovebirds fast forwards four years later. The two are living together and incessantly bickering over the tiniest minutiae in life (whether they can win The Amazing Race, preplanning sex, etc.) And early on you maystar to feel that this movie will wear thin very quickly. Staring down the prospect of 90 minutes of this back-and-forth, while funny, didn’t seem like it could sustain even the most patient viewer.
But then things change, quickly and ridiculously. Just as the two are coming to something of a definitive moment in their relationship, they are thrust into a murder investigation and possibly larger criminal conspiracy which puts them completely out of their depth.
If the prospect of watching Jibran and Leilani bickering in their apartment or on their way to a dinner party was looking tiresome, their continued tone of light to stark annoyance with each other plays perfectly as their situation in The Lovebirds grows more and more ridiculous. The couple’s rolling eyes give-and-take cuts through almost every scene, even causing the bad guys in the world around them to call them annoying, almost begging them to stop arguing even in the face of torture or even murder. It’s a fantastic comedic development that kept this often-skeptical viewer laughing almost all the way through The Lovebirds.
You get the sense that Nanjiani and Rae are playing themselves here, with little deviation from what makes them remarkably funny and creative in normal life. You’d believe, without much convincing that they are a couple with this kind of quick wit and even dismissive nature even if it’s clear they love each other.
Showalter keeps the action moving with Leilani and Jibran moving from one ridiculous place to another. Congressional torture chambers, frat boy apartments, awkward dinner parties, sex cults, and more. The Lovebirds is the theater of the absurd, but you can forgive it because the main characters are as confused as anyone else, trying to work together while also breaking up.
Comedy is hard. Romantic comedies are even harder. They require walking a tightrope of laughs (which are tough to sustain) with a sense of reality that allows the viewer to put themselves in the characters’ shoes on an emotional level. It’s this second part that is the most important but also the element that makes the great ones so enjoyable. It doesn’t matter that Jibran and Leilani are about to get grease poured on their faces in a torture scene because you can believe the part where they fight over whether either would date a burn victim.
We’ve all been in these moments in our relationship. Not the grease torture of course, but the part where we love someone while also wanting to have the last word. When you can believe this dynamic, almost anything else goes in the background.
The Lovebirds contains other themes around race and general cultural divides, but they aren’t important to the narrative or the laughs. Mostly, Nanjiani and Rae are as caught in their relationship as they are in the conspiracy around them. And it’s excellent. Equal parts funny and touching, ludicrous, and sublime. The Lovebirds really shouldn’t work, but it does because Nanjiani and Rae will it to be through their performances, convincing us that they are in fact the lovebirds we all hope to be. The rest of life takes a backseat (grease torture and all) if we love the ones we’re with.