There is a certain lightness to rom-coms that don’t take themselves too seriously. Both, the film and audience, are on the same page — “we are here to have some fun, so, sit back and grab your popcorn.” That chipper attitude, not scrambling to coin a definition of love, works; no one goes into Notting Hill-s and Crazy, Stupid, Love-s for a flurry of enlightenment. And no, this is not to say that these films do not deserve critical attention. For every serious film, you do need a light-hearted, spirited film, almost as if there is some cinematic equilibrium. You need the occasional Nancy Meyers to digest the Hitchcock. And The Lovebirds is set in this exact playing field, maybe too comfortably set.
Directed by Michael Showalter, The Lovebirds is a more frantic and crooked version of his previous film, The Big Sick, also starring Kumail Nanjiani. What begins as a honeymoon period in a blossoming relationship later turns into an everyday couple bickering about everyday things (not really) — The Amazing Race, reality tv, and orgies. Jibran (Nanjiani) thinks she is shallow and Leilani (Issa Rae) thinks he is too satisfied being a failure.
Their relationship is aptly summed up, “I’m on one page of the book and you’re reading a magazine.” Jibran is faintly depressed and Leilani is glum at this poignant realisation. As their incompatibility faces the impending doom of a breakup, Nanjiani and Rae put up honest performances in this slapstick/murder mystery/rom-com. Those two-seconds of fraught silence is augmented by the actors’ fine-drawn expressions, almost a callback to Nanjiani’s performance in The Big Sick. But these opening ten minutes are the film’s only grip to reality. And that’s fine. I don’t expect a romantic caper to remain grounded in the Baumbach-world of human connections. But it is the film’s instant disregard for the complexity of their relationship that makes the story lose its charm. This is all to fit into the predictable plot that guides the later narrative.
Minutes after their breakup, they are swept into a whirlwind of crime and activity. They witness multiple homicides, are kidnapped a couple of times, and hatch unethical schemes, themselves, like trying to fist punch a window to break it. It’s the standard James-Bond-meets-Paul-Blart strategy. Action is fused with comedy and wherever possible, some romantic elements are sprinkled in — like wistfully staring at each other after they are both hurt. The comic outings are wild and at times, clever, and the actors are puckish and rollicking, right where they need to be to not grow into caricatures. And in spite of everything that does work, the romp starts to drown in the sea of formulaic and mechanical comedies.
Writers Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall do a good job of balancing the seemingly disparate genres — the humour levels the action well. Beyond that, it’s all just obtuse clutter. They pretty much mash all the previous comedies, that they have seen, together — the film’s almost a marriage of Game Night and Something Wild, where romantic duos encounter successions of crime.
The story does a shoddy job of explaining the tragedy the ex-couple is wrapped in or why their “enemies” named “moustache” and “bicycle” are relentlessly hunting them. What we get is a raunchy, mask-wearing cult that likes to host Eyes Wide Shut inspired parties as a half-baked exposition. The writers compensate for the lack of an original formula with a lazily written script because then, it is up to the audience to imagine why anything on the screen is happening. Perhaps, if the film weren’t so uninventive and dismissive of the parts that actually struck a chord, it would have made for an excellent template of the action-comedy model.
The Lovebirds is available on Netflix.