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In the 1980s, action-comedies dominated the multiplexes. These movies followed a simple formula: Take two funny actors and put them in a crime plot that isn’t quite strong enough to be compelling without their goofing around. Action-comedies like Midnight Run, Romancing the Stone, and Stakeout succeeded entirely on the surprising chemistry between their two leads, and The Lovebirds, the new action-comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani (Stuber) and Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure), does exactly the same. It’s an 86-minute lesson in film history, and not a whole lot else.
The two comic stars play Jibran and Leilani, a once-happy couple struggling to keep their relationship afloat. They argue about the things real couples argue about—like being late for a dinner party or whether Mythbusters is reality TV or a docuseries—but with more zingers because director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) seems to have let them improvise half of the script. Nobody talks in complete jokes the way that these two do, but it doesn’t matter because nothing that’s about to happen is the slightest bit realistic, and it’s better if we’re prepared for it right away.
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On the way to a dinner party, their car is hijacked and used to commit a murder. Assuming that they will be suspects, they run from the police and decide their only path to proving their innocence is to find the murderer themselves. Where it might be a plot contrivance in other films, it’s an understandable story beat here: Leilani and Jibran, a black woman and a man of Pakistani descent, know they are innocent, but fear they won’t be believed. They feel their best shot at survival is to dive headfirst into the criminal underworld to clear their names.
Playful and predictable, The Lovebirds is a casually enjoyable film, and, like many other Netflix originals, it feels designed to be watched in between text messages. But it relies too heavily on one-liners from its talented cast, instead of creating any comic set pieces or meaningful character arcs. It loses steam as it goes, getting big laughs early on as the two stars banter liberally, but falling apart completely with a third act that’s overwhelmed by its crime plot. It’s hard to care too much about what happens to these characters when they’re constantly firing off one-liners like they’re on stage at the Improv.
Even worse, it squanders its best opportunities. As Jibran and Leilani make their way through the underbelly of New Orleans, they find themselves confronting various subcultures of white institutional power. One scene finds them accosting a group of frat boys, and the climax is set at a secret ceremony populated by the super-rich, complete with masks and strange sexual rituals. Throughout, the characters comment on how out of place they are in these settings, but they never find any real comedy in the confrontation. Instead, it’s just more one-liners. Eddie Murphy, back in his Beverly Hills Cop days, would have made a meal out of this scenario, but The Lovebirds is content to nibble around the edges.
The Lovebirdsbegins streaming on Netflix on May 22.