I’m not sure anybody was crying out for a movie that spliced together the cinematic DNA of North by Northwest, Eyes Wide Shut, Date Night and Queen & Slim, but The Lovebirds is here for you anyway. Love and danger have often intertwined tantalizingly on the big screen — what better way to inject excitement into a relationship than through a little murder and life-or-death stakes? — and you couldn’t ask for better company than Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani as a once-happy couple who are close to breaking up. If this movie, which hits Netflix on Friday, wasn’t so relentlessly dumb at every turn, it could have really been something.
As The Lovebirds begins, we meet Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) the morning after they’ve hooked up at a party. The glow is still there as they go out to breakfast and get to know one another. Their chemistry is palpable — maybe this could lead to something great. Cut to four years later: We now see Leilani and Jibran arguing, wrapped up in their own careers and not especially happy to be inhabiting the same space. He wants to get married, she thinks the whole institution is problematic, but he suspects she just doesn’t want to marry him. As they drive to a dinner party, the fight gets worse, and they both arrive at the same conclusion: Some relationships just aren’t built to last.
In real life, this would lead to hard conversations, some crying and probably at least one drunken late-night phone call from one person to the other, hoping they can get back together. But because this is a movie, that doesn’t happen. On the way over to their friends’ place, a bicyclist pops up in the middle of the street out of nowhere, smashing right into Jibran’s windshield. They’re shocked, the bicyclist gets up and pedals away, and a man who identifies himself as a cop (Paul Sparks) commandeers their car with them inside it, saying that he needs to catch this criminal before he escapes.
Leilani and Jibran are so relieved that the authorities are involved that they don’t for a moment stop to consider what will be obvious to anyone watching — this officer is dirty and he’s going to kill this bicyclist, which is exactly what happens.
One crazy misunderstanding leads to another, and soon the unidentified cop is gone and Jibran and Leilani are on the run, convinced law enforcement will assume they murdered the bicyclist. (After all, his blood is on Jibran’s coat.) Their only hope to exonerate themselves is to take the dead bicyclist’s phone to look for clues regarding who he was, where he was going and why someone wanted him dead. Thus begins a crazy nocturnal odyssey through New Orleans, leading to random encounters with everyone from frat guys to kinky orgy enthusiasts. You know how love goes.
Rae and Nanjiani have both done good work on the small and big screen. (She created HBO’s Insecure and was terrific in the underrated romantic drama The Photograph, while he starred in HBO’s Silicon Valley and got an Oscar nomination, alongside his wife Emily V. Gordon, for his hit indie The Big Sick.) When they’re just hanging out and riffing off one another in The Lovebirds, they can be really funny. But the screenplay, by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, is the sort of high-concept hot mess that studios court when they’re not mass-producing superhero movies — the story’s got a great hook and very little after that. And that leaves two talented rising stars twisting in the wind.
Roger Ebert used to compile a list of handy invented movie terms, and one of his best entries was the “Idiot Plot,” which he helpfully defined as “[a]ny plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” The Idiot Plot happens a lot in horror movies — seriously, dummy, don’t go in that room with all the blood coming out of it — but The Lovebirds is a reminder that some mistaken-identity thrillers flirt with similar terrain. After all, these films’ central conceit is that an innocent man (or woman) gets confused with someone else, forcing the main character to spend the rest of the plot trying to extricate himself from this nightmare.
The best of this subgenre knew how to sidestep the problem. North by Northwest was brilliant because the more Cary Grant’s dashing ad executive insisted he wasn’t a spy, the more debonair and spy-like he seemed. With Queen & Slim, the whole point was that the two African-American characters had to go on the run precisely because they knew nobody would believe that they had killed a racist white cop in self-defense. The Lovebirds tries something similar — Leilani argues that their skin color will doom them if they go to the police — but it never seems particularly plausible, no matter how racist our country is. Like a lot of things in The Lovebirds, it would have made more sense if Leilani and Jibran just explained what happened, but then there would have been no movie, and so they have to act like idiots.
The movie is directed by Michael Showalter, who previously teamed up with Nanjiani on The Big Sick, a sweet, funny romantic comedy-drama with a potentially implausible premise: Boy meets girls, boy dumps girl, girl falls into coma, boy meets girl’s parents. Of course, in that case it helped that the story was based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s actual courtship, but it was grounded in realistic behavior that made it charming and touching. And in the process, Nanjiani proved himself to be an intensely likable everyman.
But since then, Nanjiani has struggled a bit, flailing desperately in the lame comedy Stuber and riffing unsuccessfully as a sidekick character in the abysmal Men in Black: International. He’s realer in The Lovebirds as a perfectionist documentarian who can’t stop futzing with his socially-conscious passion project, afraid the woman of his dreams is going to leave him because he’s not successful enough for her. (His fears may be well-founded: When he denigrates trashy reality TV, Leilani hits back with, “You make documentaries, okay? Those are just reality shows that no one watches.”)
There’s potential for a smart comedy in which the beta-male Jibran has to rise to the challenge to become an ass-kicking hero in order to save the day and also prove his own worth. Instead, The Lovebirds mostly asks Leilani and Jibran to bluff their way through several dangerous situations, trying to trick people into thinking they’re hardened criminals. This is only occasionally funny, which when it happens is all credit to Rae and Nanjiani, but quite often, the easier thing would be for them to say, “Listen, your bicyclist friend was killed. Can you help us figure out what happened?” Remarkably, they never try that, and so the movie keeps grinding on from one strained set piece to the next.
When you complain about the logic of a silly comedy, the inevitable response from readers is that you should lighten up — after all, it’s only a movie. But the general idiocy of The Lovebirds — its willingness to go for the cheap gag or the obvious plot twist — is frustrating simply because a better movie is right there within reach. Lord knows its two fun stars are game. As Leilani and Jibran endure this harrowing evening, they’ll most assuredly also work through their problems, maybe even realize why they clicked in the first place. The idea is that it took them almost getting killed, several times, to appreciate what they have in one another.
But The Lovebirds isn’t even bright enough to make that idea resonate — you don’t really learn much about them or their relationship. The first scene post-hookup is so enchanting, sexy and naturally funny that it suggests the warm rapport these actors have. The rest of the movie wastes time ignoring that in order to shoehorn them into a dopey thriller.
In the past few years, Hollywood has taken tiny strides to be more inclusive in its casting. We now have female-driven superhero movies. Black Panther was a global phenomenon. And Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani actually have the opportunity to be the stars they might not have been a couple generations ago. Obviously, the industry shouldn’t be patted too hard on the back for these achievements, but at least it’s a start.
Yet while suffering through The Lovebirds, which is the sort of underwhelming nothing that’s well-suited for watching mindlessly on an airplane — whenever we can do that again, of course — I started to figure out why this movie’s Idiot Plot bugged me so much. Actors such as Rae and Nanjiani have been spoiling for good parts for so long, that it’s a shame that a dumb mediocrity like The Lovebirds is all they got in return.