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The Lovebirds' wild ride hits a bump

THE LOVEBIRDS. There's a lot to unpack here, both in terms of the movie itself and pandemic-related shifts in the industry. I'll briefly address the latter before belaboring the former.

Paramount had The Lovebirds slated for theatrical release — granted, April isn't exactly prestige season but still — and, facing the current closure and future uncertainty of theaters, made a game-time decision: They sold the movie to Netflix. This can hardly be called the tipping point but it would seem to be another example of the perhaps permanent changes with which the movie industry is faced. Most of this summer's major releases have been pushed back. We won't see the next Fast and Furious installment until 2021 and the new Bond has been tentatively rescheduled for late fall. Warner Bros. remains the holdout, insisting that Christopher Nolan's Tenet has the clout to re-open cinemas worldwide in July. I'm skeptical. Paramount, having lost the tent-pole arms race, seems both more desperate and more pragmatic. I haven't seen the books but I suspect the studio has a greater need to get its content to market, to recoup production costs than the bigger (and smaller) players. Hard to say, but they seem to be something of a canary in the coal mine of conventional production and distribution models. Maybe they're the slowest gazelle. At any rate, The Lovebirds has become yet another example of the virus-accelerated need for the industry to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace. Whether the move to Netflix, rather than to a rental VOD platform or a postponed theatrical opening, will put The Lovebirds in front of more viewers remains to be seen. But it is undeniable evidence of unprecedented shifts in the way we can and will watch movies as time goes on.

More to the meat of the thing, The Lovebirds stars Kumail Nanjiani — whom I've been following for a decade or so, first as a stand-up and podcaster, more lately as a Movie Star (!) — and Issa Rae, who seems poised to become a titan of the industry and possesses a striking sense of composure and comic timing in front of the camera; both are credited as executive producers. It is directed by Michael Showalter, a comic force in his own right (The State, Stella, Wet Hot American Summer) who has re-cast himself as a director of grown-up comedies: The Baxter (2005) is one of the few successful modern riffs on the screwball genre and something of a slept-on classic; Hello, My Name is Doris (2015) gives voice to infatuation and desire in a generation all but ignored in modern media; The Big Sick (2017) put Nanjiani (who co-wrote the screenplay) on the rocket-sled to stardom. So the movie has some bonafides and the hope of subverting the couple-in-peril comedy. It would be unfair to say it squanders its gifts but the material at the center of the piece may not deserve them.

Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) are introduced in the easy, surprising, intoxicating first days of their relationship. Smash cut to four years later and things aren't so easy. Familiarity has bred ennui has bred contempt, and the two of them determine that they shouldn't continue to be a couple while driving to a friend's dinner party. But then they get carjacked, witness a vehicular homicide, flee the scene, determine that they should try to solve the case, get wrapped up in an elite sex cult and take another look at what their relationship really means.

Absent the chemistry and charisma of its stars, or Showalter's competence behind the camera, I likely wouldn't have even gotten this far in a discussion of this movie. It draws on long traditions (buddy comedies and all-in-one-night adventures among them) but the screenplay seems to have been treated more as a connect-the-dots opportunity for Rae and Nanjiani to embellish their characters than as a complete work. The villains of the piece seem unintentionally underdeveloped and when one of them reveals his scheme to the protagonists in the third act, it feels more like the result of lazy necessity than it does a comment on the tropes of genre. And while it establishes a modicum of individual aesthetic in the early going, by the end the movie looks a lot like a lot of others.

It's still fun and funny, for the most part, but I couldn't help but feel it had been disassembled and modified and reassembled so many times that it lost any cohesive sense of self. As a result, the stars look like they're doing their best with something in which they aren't fully invested. The emotional center feels hollow and, despite strong efforts all around, it undermines the comedy as well as the drama. R. 87M. NETFLIX.

John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.

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John J. Bennett

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