Movies

The Lovebirds Updates a 1940s Genre for the 2020s

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani bring fresh energy to an old-fashioned comedy of remarriage.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani stand apart, their phones out, not looking at each other.
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in The Lovebirds. Skip Bolen/Netflix

While many romantic comedies focus on the making of the match, The Lovebirds opens after it’s already been made. In the movie’s first scene, Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) are in the rosy glow of first love, extending the morning after their first hookup with an impromptu breakfast and walk in the park. But one “Four Years Later” caption later, the bloom is entirely off the rose, and less than 10 minutes in, they break up. The bulk of the slim, less-than-90-minute runtime concerns how they’ll get back together.

This setup hearkens back to a comedy of remarriage, the classic Hollywood subgenre in which an established couple (often featuring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, or both) begins at the edge of breaking up and then spends the movie rediscovering why they were always meant for each other. (Spoiler: The Awful Truth in the movie of that name is that they’re still in love.) One of the reasons why the rom-com generally has fallen on hard times in the 21st century is because so many of the classic obstacles placed in the characters’ way—familial pressure, sexual repression—don’t hold sway the way they used to, but in the comedy of remarriage, they’re already together, and the obstacle is themselves or, sometimes, the interference of something less expected, such as a fugitive leopard. That’s why, in The Lovebirds, a few minutes after the two decide the time has come for them to break up, their car is hijacked by a man who says he’s a police officer and they find themselves inadvertent accessories to murder.

In 2004, critic David Edelstein observed that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reworked the comedy of marriage, but there, the obstacles were not social but science-fictional—the lovers had literally been erased from each others’ minds. Nanjiani and Lovebirds director Michael Showalter previous collaborated on The Big Sick, in which the impediment to, and eventual restorer of, the characters’ happiness is a life-threatening illness. In The Lovebirds, it’s a homicide, one to which Leilani and Jibran are innocent bystanders, but for numerous reasons, including the fact that they’re both people of color (another element that’s new to this subgenre), they don’t expect the police to believe they’re innocent. The distraught young white woman who calls the cops on them seems as upset about having to identify their race as she does about the bike courier their car has just run over multiple times. “I don’t think they’re murderers because, like, they’re minorities,” she sobs. “I think they’re murderers because they literally just killed a guy.”

Despite the fact that The Lovebirds has three credited writers and also feels like it was punched up by Rae or Nanjiani or both—a running gag about one of Leilani’s co-workers stealing all his jokes from Katt Williams is an inspired grace note—the story that follows feels half-baked and underthought. (It’s hard to remember that before the pandemic closed movie theaters, this was meant to be a theatrical release, since it has the threadbare look of a straight-to-streaming production.) Although a few exterior shots take advantage of the story’s New Orleans setting, there’s little sense of place—not even the cops have Louisiana accents, although Pitch Perfect’s Anna Camp, as a member of the conspiracy into which the fugitive pair stumbles, does try something broad and generically Southern. You get the sense the production stopped in Louisiana just long enough to pick up the tax credit and then relocated to the nearest warehouse.

The precise route of Leilani and Jibran’s flight isn’t that important: Its purpose is to throw the depth of their connection into stark relief. When one of them starts referring to the man whose killing they witnessed as “Bicycle,” the other doesn’t wonder whom they’re talking about, or even question the moniker; they just pick up the thread and extend it, calling his mustachioed killer “Mustache.” They trace the victim back to an apartment inhabited by several white frat boys and start interrogating one, whom Rae belittles as, among other things, “Li’l Brett Kavanaugh” and “Date Rape McGee,” and as they both put on their most intimidating faces, they slip into a rhythm without consultation. When they were living their bourgeois, pressure-free life, they had time to fight over whether Leilani was flirting with the IT guy at her ad agency or whether she was sufficiently respectful of Jibran’s career as a documentary editor. But put them up against a wall, and each has the other’s back. When they finally get to the root of the conspiracy, which involves a scenario straight out of Eyes Wide Shut, she turns to him and whispers, “Are we having the same dream?”

The way The Lovebirds executes this old template is largely unremarkable, so the fact that it works anyway is a testament to its leads’ star power, especially Rae’s. The “I just fell in love with you” smile she shoots Nanjiani in the movie’s opening minutes has a gleam that could power a small city, and she aces the deadpan in the moment when a waitress notices the smears on Nanjiani’s coat and Leilani explains, “We were just painting our house … blood colors.” You wish the two had more help, but the fact that they manage to carry the movie anyway just makes more clear how great their chemistry was all along.

For more on The Lovebirds, listen to this Spoiler Special podcast about the movie.