The set-up for “The Lovebirds”, Netflix’s latest high-profile film offering, encapsulates its genre-mixing quality as a romantic comedy/crime action hybrid: a bickering couple on the verge of splitting up (played by Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae) witnesses a murder and are quickly framed for the crime. On the run from the law and desperate to exonerate themselves, the two decide to find the true culprit, ultimately becoming enmeshed in blackmail schemes run by frat boys and creepy, mask-wearing cultists.
Judging by the synopsis alone, the finished product should at least be entertaining. It is in a breezy way, meaning that it is not engrossing and it is certainly not memorable: it is amusing background-fodder for when you are folding the laundry. This probably will come as a disappointment for fans of either Nanjiani or Rae, two actors who have shown themselves to be highly capable in stories that combine comedy and drama—e.g., Nanjiani’s excellent performance in 2017’s “The Big Sick.” To their credit, the two leads turn in able performances here, considering the material they were given. And therein lies the problem: the material itself. Neither thrilling nor suspenseful and lacking in meaningful character arcs, “The Lovebirds” is not very good as a crime thriller or as a legitimate romantic comedy.
First, the parts of the plot where the main characters uncover the various criminal conspiracies zip by way too quickly. The characters careen from one clue to the next with barely any investigation, and seemingly key villains are introduced either only to be never really heard from again (what was Edie’s ultimate fate?) or immediately dispatched with, thereby never inculcating a true sense of danger or peril for the characters (and therefore not resulting in any suspense). The motivations of the villains are never explicated and the purpose of the cult is not even revealed (I get that information is not central to the two main characters, but wouldn’t they be curious at the very least?). In all, the crime subplot of this movie is not fleshed out well at all, but rather feels like a flimsily construct to keep the main characters together.
The film also falls victim to a common problem among comedy-action hybrids, which is the inability to synthesize the comedic bits with the thriller aspects. The result is that neither element transcends on its own. Often, the two characters will either engage in petty arguments that derive their humor from the sheer pettiness on display or stand-up-comic-like monologues with wry observational humor. Decontextualized, these moments can actually be quite funny (I found Nanjiani’s seemingly genuine confusion on why milkshakes come with excess metal containers to be especially amusing), but the problem is that a lot of these exchanges undercut moments that are supposed to be more suspenseful. During scenes in which the main characters might be potentially tortured, all sense of danger and worry for their well-being are completely evaporated by their non-stop sardonic riffing—it is a generally acknowledged rule in movies like this that if the characters are joking in such a manner, then they are not in any true peril. Because we cannot empathize with their danger, there is no catharsis in the escape, and without catharsis, there cannot be significant emotion. As a result, the film seems flat-lined and static, with no real stakes or set of conflicts to root against.
Yet, despite these faults, the film’s cardinal sin is its representation of the relationship between the two leads. There is only one instance in which the characters analyze the sources of their initial incompatibility (Nanjiani claims Rae is too shallow, and Rae retorts that Nanjiani is too content with his lack of professional success), but even this scene is inadequate. First, it violates the first rule taught to all aspiring screenwriters: show, don’t tell. Here, the characters literally detail the other’s main problem, effectively telling the audience the issue rather than demonstrating it implicitly through the characters’ actions during the course of the story. The characters, therefore, do not feel authentic. What is even worse, however, is that nothing else in the film supports the characters’ accusations. If this scene were not to exist, I would have never thought that Nanjiani’s defect was a shortcoming of professionalism, nor would I think that Rae was shallow. Thus, the scene seems like an afterthought shoved into the script after the writers realized they had not come up with a source of tension between the couple, and then did not even alter the other scenes to support the newly inserted diagnoses. It is lazy and inexcusable for a multi-million mainstream feature.
Other than the problematic ‘show, don’t tell’ scene, there is no effort to establish the source of the leads’ discontentment with each other. All their bickering is played for comedy, with the topics of their disagreements being petty, mundane subjects—e.g., the opening argument between the couple centers on if they can win The Amazing Race (no, I’m not kidding). Some of it is admittedly funny, but at some point, there have to be clear-cut problems so that the characters can have goals to work toward—namely, the attempt to rectify their shortcomings in order to reconcile their relationship. This film does none of that. Because there are no believable reasons for discord, goals for the characters are not established, and hence there is no perceivable character growth. As a result, the reconciliation at the end remains a mystery: neither character appeared to change or re-align their values, so why is the relationship suddenly healed? The ending does not feel like the natural conclusion to the story, but rather the result of an externally manipulated concoction. In all, “The Lovebirds” is a disappointment, squashing the talent of its cast with lazy, mediocre writing that fails to establish thrills and strips the characters of meaningful arcs