Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are Rom-Com’s Next Supercouple in ‘The Lovebirds’

They don’t make movies like The Lovebirds anymore.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movie studios didn’t rely on intellectual properties and potential franchises to fill theater seats. What they had were movie stars, and sometimes, a pair of them would ignite a spark on screen so powerful that the film they starred in was immaterial. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; chemistry-rich couplings like those were more than worth the price of admission, plot mechanics be damned.

The Lovebirds is a modern twist on that old tradition. The pairing this time around is Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, of HBO’s Insecure and Silicon Valley, playing the titular lovebirds Leilani and Jibran. The film thrusts us right in the middle of the morning-after of their first date, with its furtive glances and charmingly awkward attempts to keep it going. No time is wasted: these two, with their complementary senses of humor, are made for each other, until they aren’t. Fast forward four years, and Leilani and Jibran are in tatters. They fight constantly over stupid things like The Amazing Race and the mechanics of group sex. Just as they’re calling it quits, a man crash-lands on the hood of their car, kicking off a topsy-turvy amusement park ride that finds the squabbling ex-couple fighting to clear their names of murder, and re-discovering themselves in the process.

The plot is actually more complicated than that. For a 90-minute feature film, a lot happens, including but not limited to: a blackmail scheme by some fratboys, dirty cops, a pastiche of Eyes Wide Shut’s sex cult, and threats of harm by way of two farm animals. And yet the details, or even its basic structure, are besides The Lovebirds‘ point. The film is a shameless star vehicle for Rae and Nanjiani, and director Michael Showalter doesn’t bother with the pretense that it’s anything more than that. He sets a pace that makes it nearly impossible to really consider Leilani and Jibran’s circumstances. Before you’re asking whether trying to trace the steps of their not-quite victim is really a sound legal strategy, our heroes are trying to break into an apartment building with a stiletto heel, or a wonderfully unhinged Anna Camp is threatening them with bacon grease and horse kicks.

Refreshingly, no one involved in The Lovebirds appears to take themselves or the film’s premise too seriously. The script, by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, is tight and consistently funny, relying on the self-deprecation and dryness that Rae and Nanjiani excel in. The film doesn’t reach for anything particularly profound or insightful, and is better for it. Even the salient point about how people of color are perceived by law enforcement which drives their actions is largely played for laughs. Most romantic comedies try to strike a balance between the two genres, but The Lovebirds is largely in service to humor, and while that doesn’t make for the most complex experience, it is a frequently hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable one.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in The Lovebirds (courtesy: Netflix)

What really makes The Lovebirds successful is how well Rae and Nanjiani work together. So much hinges on their chemistry that even one misstep would cause the film to collapse onto itself. There’s also the fact that a romantic comedy starring a nonwhite, multi-racial couple – a dark-skinned black woman and a South Asian man at that – is disappointingly rare, and the film’s failure certainly wouldn’t help matters of representation. And yet, that pressure evaporates when the two of them share the screen. There is a natural ease to their interactions, a tightly-notched alignment in their comedic rhythms that makes it easy to believe that they truly know one another and what makes them tick. While the script certainly favors their comedic leanings, they also generate potent sexual tension. It’s a cliché at this point, but everyone deserves someone who looks at them the way Nanjiani looks at Rae. For her part, Rae colors her performance with unexpected and striking shades of vulnerability that only heightens her comedy. They are in top form separately, but together it feels like they could be the next big supercouple of the romantic comedy; think Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but delightfully more vulgar.

Suggesting that any aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic as advantageous for anyone feels inherently wrong, but The Lovebirds ending up on Netflix may be its best case scenario. Free from the pressures of box office performance to roam the streaming landscape, the film stands a much better chance at finding an audience that would appreciate its easy hilarity, as well as the quiet progressivism of its two leads. It’s unsettlingly easy to imagine a world where The Lovebirds underperforms in theaters and studios decide not to cast Rae and Nanjiani in more projects together. What a colossal waste that would’ve been.

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