Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani generate big laughs and a sense of genuine connection as a New Orleans couple on the skids who find out what they really mean to each other when a bunch of psychos try to kill them. Why? Screenwriters Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall strain hard to bring clarity to a tale based on mistaken identity. Luckily, director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, Wet Hot American Summer) keeps the action percolating even when the holes in the plot could swallow a tank.
Since The Lovebirds unfurls over a single night a la After Hours and Game Night, the pressure is on the two stars to keep us in their corner. And do they ever. Rae, an Emmy nominee for HBO’s Insecure and star of the sleeper hit The Photograph, plays Leilani, an ad-agency exec with a solid bullshit detector. Nanjiani, of HBO’s much-missed Silicon Valley and an Oscar nominee for co-writing the semi-autobiographical The Big Sick with his wife Emily V. Gordon, is Jibran, a filmmaker who can’t always dodge his partner’s verbal bullets. Leilani resents Jibran for spending more time on making his documentary about corruption in the educational system (it’s been years already) then he does making out with her.
The credits open with a flashback to their first date, when Jibran flashes his “I Wanna Kiss You Face” and Leilani laughs at him. Then, bam, there’s a jump cut to four years later when the lovebirds are fighting like hell. The surface issue is about The Amazing Race: Leilani thinks they could enter and win; Jibran hates reality shows. Leilani counters that “documentaries are just reality shows that nobody watches.” Ouch! He calls her shallow for her social-media obsession and she berates him for his “white-woman fingers” and being satisfied with being a failure. Though both agree that “marriage is bullshit,” they clearly love each other. But on the drive over to their friends house for dinner, the two agree to break up.
That’s when a cyclist rams right into their windshield and a dude with a mustache claiming to be a cop jumps in their car and runs down Bicycle Man before running away and leaving the lovebirds to take the heat for his murder. Can Jibran and Leilani clear their names? More crucially, can Showalter and his dynamite duo deliver a knockabout farce that still allows for authentic emotion?
You better believe it. No matter that the script lines up a series of improbable, near-death experiences, involving the killer they know only as Mustache (Paul Sparks), blackmailing fratboys, a pissed off Senator’s wife (Anna Camp, a hoot), and a masked sex cult out of Eyes Wide Shut. There’s also a duet to Katy Perry’s “Firework” that has nothing to do with anything except add to the partytime atmosphere.
Trivial nonsense? Maybe. But credit cinematographer Brian Burgoyne’s detours around the non-touristy sectors of the Big Easy, and Showalter for packing in sharp comic details. Take the casual prejudice suffered by his black and brown protagonists. A white cop in a NOLA squad car slows down to give them the side-eye. Jibran is relieved that he’s just a “normal racist” and not ready to shoot. It’s those scrappy touches that raise the bar on this rowdy rom-com. The Lovebirds knows how to send out a laugh with a sting in its tail. That’s what they call inspired lunacy.