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Great chemistry between a pair of leads in a film can never be a full substitute for sharp writing and smart direction, but it certainly can be one hell of an X factor. When two performers can produce a special dynamic that really clicks, it can enhance every other aspect of a movie – and while that’s a verity true for all genres, it can be particularly important for romantic comedies. If a pair of actors can authentically bring a relationship to life in a story while also operating with harmonious timing, the results can be exceptional.
In case it isn’t obvious where this is heading, Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds is a wonderful demonstration of this fact. Going into the film, stars Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae had no shared credits (other than both being main characters in their own HBO shows), but the new film reveals them as fantastic collaborators who can generate a wonderful and hilarious back-and-forth while the story throws challenge after challenge in their characters’ way. Plot-wise, it’s not precisely a unique creation, but it has its own flavor and is consistently hilarious.
When we first meet Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae), they are a clicking pair who find what could be a one night stand evolve into something more… but time then hits them like a sock full of quarters to the eye socket. Four years into their relationship they do nothing but bicker and snipe at each other, frequently fighting about the totally inconsequential. One night, while on their way to attend an event at a friend’s place, they decide that enough is enough and that their time together has run its course – but, naturally, fate has other plans.
Mere moments after agreeing to terminate their relationship, Jibran and Leilani accidentally hit a clearly panicked cyclist (Nicholas X. Parsons) with their car, and that’s only the start of their bad night. When the victim flees the scene, a man who introduces himself as a cop (Paul Sparks) commandeers their vehicle and gives chase, and our protagonists cheer him on believing that he is hunting down an on-the-run criminal. The mood entirely changes, though, when the stranger opts not to take down and arrest the guy on the bike, but instead run him over several times to ensure that he is dead.
When witnesses on the scene cause the killer to disappear before he can take care of Jibran and Leilani as loose ends, the two leads begin to freak out. Recognizing that they look exceptionally guilty, and with no immediate means of proving their innocence, the decision is made to run away – not immediately realizing that it really only makes the situation much worse. Putting their heads together, they agree that the only way for them to clear their names is to find the murderer themselves, sending them on a wild adventure through the night.
While there are a few clichés in play, The Lovebirds will still surprise you.
The idea of an everyday couple finding themselves in over their heads on a wild night full of crime and chaos is a genre exercise that we see pop up every few years, with Shawn Levy’s Date Night and John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night being two recent examples that spring to mind, but The Lovebirds never feels tired because its execution always feels so rich. The film operates in familiar waters, and doesn’t exactly shy away from tropes (such as the couple needing to escape an amateur hostage situation, and then later conducting their own take on an intimidating interrogation), but the recognition of the material is secondary in the moment, as you’re too busy laughing to think about the other movies where you’ve seen similar setups.
Further to its credit, the script is smarter than you might think, as it repeatedly finds ways to keep out in front of the audience. There are occasional moments where you find yourself as a viewer questioning some of the choices made – either made by the characters or by the plot – but before you can even fully formulate the plot the movie finds ways to address those issues (not all, but most). It even manages to hook a nice third act twist into the works that has the effect of elevating the material preceding it.
Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae are phenomenal together.
What takes The Lovebirds over the goal line, however, is just the struck gold that is the back-and-forth energy that Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae are able to generate, resulting in numerous laugh out loud scenes and a permanent smile watching them in action. There exists a fine line for them to walk, as the heightened nature of the situation has to be balanced out by natural reactions and a grounded relationship, but both actors do brilliant work, and get the most out of the material. In any circumstance, whether they are scared or acting big, they get laughs.
Additionally, they’re able to pull off a fascinating kind of magic trick with their relationship, with their excellent chemistry being the key to it all. There are a number of potential hazards in having a squabbling couple as leads, but Nanjiani and Rae succeed not falling in any of the traps. While there are certainly negative emotions at play, they are never mean-spirited or really hateful, and the movie doesn’t even really utilize awkwardness as a comedic device. What sounds like bickering on the surface is banter on a deeper level, and it’s thanks to the compatible skill and timing of the stars.
With The Lovebirds, Michael Showalter further cements himself as one of the best comedy directors in Hollywood.
It’s clear that Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae have talent that is going to take them very far in the coming years, but not to be totally overshadowed is Michael Showalter, who is quickly becoming one of the best comedy directors working today. The humor and setup is a bit broader than the filmmaker’s last two feature efforts – My Name Is Doris and The Big Sick – but seeing him execute that kind of range at this point in his career is more exciting than anything, particularly because The Lovebirds works so well. There has never been any question about Showalter knowing funny, as he has been demonstrating that particular skill as both an actor and a writer for decades at this point, but it’s fantastic that he’s now getting such great opportunities as a director.
It’s always wonderful to see a romantic comedy with an equal balance of its genre delineation, and that’s precisely what The Lovebirds does. In addition to being uproarious at times, it inspires the desire to see Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae in dozens more projects together, as they are hilarious and electric. It’s a winner.