It’s not every day, or even every year, that a romantic comedy touches a nerve of reality — and is drop-dead funny, and becomes an acclaimed awards-bait hit. So when a director makes the rare romantic comedy that accomplishes all those things, unwittingly or not he has set the bar high for his next effort. “The Lovebirds” is the first movie directed by Michael Showalter since “The Big Sick,” the 2017 indie knockout about love, cultural identity, and a girlfriend in a coma, and since this one also costars the deadpan live wire Kumail Nanjiani (though he didn’t cowrite it, as he did “The Big Sick”), it’s hard not to go in with your expectations in overdrive.
The opening scenes totally deliver. We see the moony morning after the night that Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) first slept together — they met at an event while flirting at the crudité table — and the actors generate the kind of connective heat that’s either there or it’s not.
Their combustible chemistry only gets heightened in the terrific follow-up scene, set four years later, where the two are now a veteran couple who are living together and falling apart. The script, by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, has some sharply witty exchanges, all built around the way these two can quarrel about anything. Like whether or not he likes restaurants (She: “You literally spent several hours yesterday writing a negative Yelp review with your white-woman fingers about that tapas place we went to.” He: “It was very salty. I didn’t know I would get mouth-fucked by the Dead Sea”). Or whether they should be contestants on “The Amazing Race” (She: “You make documentaries. Those are just reality shows that no one watches”).
A comedy about two people who love each other but have fallen into a fatal power duel feels like just the ticket for these edgy, uncertain times. Nanjiani has a pinpoint gift for articulating exasperation (often with a deftly placed obscenity), and Rae, with her own loquacious fury, matches him quip for quip as the two characters head out to a dinner party, sniping all the way.
Just when it looks like they might be breaking up, something lands — crash! — on the windshield of their car. It’s a bloodied bicycle messenger. As he rolls off the hood and gets back onto his bike, a stranger pushes his way into the car and takes the driver’s seat — a surly figure in a brush cut and mustache who claims to be a police officer. Suddenly, Jibran and Leilani are in the middle of an action film, chasing the bad guy, or so it seems. Because when they catch up to him, the cop in question hits the bike messenger with the car, rolls over him a few times, and disappears.
“The Lovebirds” is now a comedy about a murder, and about the two innocents who are terrified that it’s all going to be pinned on them. So even though they’ve done nothing wrong, instead of calling the police (or even answering their inquiries) they decide to pursue a contact on the bad guy’s cell phone and solve the crime all by themselves. Which may provoke the following reaction: “Huh?”
“The Lovebirds” would like to be a love story that’s also a cheeky crime story, where the laughs crackle with anxiety and the more recklessly out there the situation becomes, the more it draws the two characters together. Yet we have to be able to believe what we’re watching — or, at least, in a good movie we do. And “The Lovebirds” quickly descends into the kind of synthetically plotted, harmless-at-its-core caper that may remind you of a ramshackle Hollywood action comedy like “Date Night.”
At first we think (or hope) that it’s closer to the bone than that, as Jibran and Leilani retreat to a diner, scared as hell, and Jibran tries to burn off the tension with an antsy hilarious monologue about how they always give you the leftover milkshake in that silver container, but why don’t they do the same thing with, you know, spaghetti? For a moment, “The Lovebirds” still carries the heightened air of “Something Wild” or “Widows” or “After Hours” — a tingly caper of ordinary people ignited by extraordinary danger.
But as soon as the two track down their underworld contact, and get conked on the head, and are offered the torture of their choice as if they were on “Let’s Make a Deal,” the movie turns into something more over-the-top. The scheme they’re unraveling involves a set of photographs, an apartment full of frat-house bros who stuff the photos into envelopes, and a creepy cult of aristocrats in black tie and bird masks that’s a sendup of “Eyes Wide Shut.” Jibran and Leilani continue to bicker about everything at the most inappropriate moments, but even this knowing joke is tied to how the two have fallen down a rabbit hole of junk-thriller contrivance.
Bits and pieces of the movie are funny, as when the two jabber away at their captors about how Jibran got his idea for a body-wash commercial, or a scene where they come on like bruisers by doing an awesomely inept impersonation of things they’ve seen in movies. Yet there are not one, not two, but three scenes where they get into a violent fracas with a seasoned crook, and each time they somehow bungle and bonk their way to victory. Sorry, but that’s just lazy filmmaking. “The Lovebirds” had every right to be a different movie than “The Big Sick,” but this one aims lower and misfires.