3 out of 5 stars

With Netflix increasing its catalogue of romantic comedy films, it easy to assume The Lovebirds always belonged on their platform. However, it was originally coming to cinemas from Paramount Pictures, which one can tell from the moment it starts.

The Lovebirds was scheduled for release in April 2020 but that wasn’t possible once the COVID-19 pandemic started closing cinema chains. The producers quickly negotiated a global release through Netflix instead, but news on a release date didn’t arrive until two weeks ago. Premiering quietly on Netflix with little publicity and even less public interest, it seems the filmmakers are assuming they’re going to make a strategic loss.

It’s a pity because The Lovebirds has an interesting premise and could’ve lured cinema audiences based on that alone. Marketed as a rom-com, it aims to avoid that genre’s cliches by mixing things up with a crime plot. Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are a couple on the verge of breakup after four years together, arguing over the mundane everyday things that are indicative of deeper relationship trouble. Their breakup, however, is put on pause when they become witnesses to a crime. Thinking they could be assumed to be the murderers, they go on the run together to find the actual culprit.

Adding to this the combination of lead actors whose stars are both ascending (Rae stars in HBO’s Insecure, Nanjiani is in Marvel’s upcoming blockbuster The Eternals), and it could have been the quirky indie rom-com to watch. The fact The Lovebirds serves as a snapshot of a time in 2020 when we could all venture outdoors is also a plus.

The strength of this film lies in the realism of its story, script, and characters. While Netflix’s homegrown rom-coms, headlined by the likes of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and The Kissing Booth (2018), this film is rooted in the character’s mundane lives. Jibran and Leilani seem like any other couple; they bicker at the wrong times, are well-versed in pop culture trivia, and ramble nervously when confronted. Most importantly, they don’t live in a world where lovey-dovey kissing moments can cause dangerous situations, and they definitely aren’t able to do anything just because they’ve watched it on TV. For example, Jibran references Mythbusters during their failed attempt to break a window.

The writers know comedy can occur just by throwing a regular couple into a bad (and awkward) situation. There’s no need for MacGuffins or a sudden revelation of a useful background in crime, or any Sherlock Holmesian abilities. Comedy gold happens when you’re watching them falter and learn more about amateur crime-solving. There’s minimal musical accompaniment besides the opening credits, which works to immerse the audience in the situation alongside the characters. The Lovebirds is entertaining because you’re wondering if you could, or would, deal with the situation any differently from Jibran and Leilani.

This film feels like it would have made a great date-night rom-com, but it suffers from the same issue that makes it unique: it isn’t really a rom-com, and it isn’t totally a whodunnit thriller. There are minimal romantic moments, and it doesn’t have the characters make life-changing decisions. At the same time, the plot serves to show us how this couple made it through a bad situation, and it doesn’t feel the need to wrap up the crime in a neat bow. That makes it frustrating to watch because it feels anti-climatic, regardless of how you expected it to end. There are no big displays of love and no long-winded pontification by the killer. You’re left wondering ‘okay, so what happened next?’

However, The Lovebirds is certainly worth watching just for the dialogue and the performances. As comedians and writers in their own right, Nanjiani and Rae are perfectly matched; their banter’s top-notch and even throwaway lines about police monitoring are delivered with pitch-perfect comic timing. While this isn’t the first time they’ve been cast as romantic leads (Nanjiani co-wrote and starred in The Big Sick, Rae was in The Photograph), the combination of these two together is electric. They’re able to sell the awkwardness so well, and you’re just holding your breath waiting for punchlines. The problem is, we’re watching this film at home on Netflix on a sofa, where you’re surrounded by a multitude of distractions. The cinema’s ability to monopolise attention would’ve come in handy for a film like this, as one can feel the rapid-fire lines are supposed to be generating laughter to a crowded cinema.

In the end, The Lovebirds feels like a story you’d tell a friend. When you’re the narrator, you’ll incorporate moments that are funny, romantic, and scary… but skip the details and other irrelevancies. That’s fine and dandy when you’re expecting a follow-up in another episode or movie, but here, the story just ends. It’s like a party that abruptly stops because you got tired of hosting it.

The Lovebirds would’ve benefited from a couple of extra scenes at the end to wrap up the story better. They could also have included extra scenes with the wonderful supporting cast (Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer), and expanded more on the relationship between all the characters in the film. Maybe Netflix can finance a sequel where it continues the couple’s adventures?

USA | 2020 | 86 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Michael Showalter.
writers: Aaron Abrams & Brendan Gall.
starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Anna Camp, Paul Sparks, Kyle Bornheimer, Kelly Murtagh & Moses Storm.