Of the many things I worry about, both big and small, concerning the coronavirus, the state of the big movie studio comedy is one of them.
Prior to theaters shutting down, it wasn’t in a great place. Besides comedies starring Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson and Melissa McCarthy, most are now pushed to streaming platforms, lost to the algorithm.
Starring bankable comedic actors Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, “The Lovebirds” was going to be one of those rare original comedies that would make it to the cinema, at least until they all shut down.
Instead, it’s premiering on Netflix, and after seeing it, it’s hard to imagine any reason for this go anywhere but a streaming service. It’s competently executed, but also bland and disposable.
The big reason for this getting a shot in the theater is the past success of its director, Michael Showalter, and its co-star, Nanjiani, who collaborated on the Oscar-nominated comedy “The Big Sick” in 2017. It was a sweet, funny surprise comedy reminiscent of those big rom-com smashes in the ’90s. Throw in “Insecure’s” charismatic Issa Rae and what studio wouldn’t want a cast and crew with that kind of winning charm?
It turns out that goodwill following all three can only go so far, as the script for “The Lovebirds,” written by Aaron Abrams and Brendon Gall, leaves them all straining, as they mug and yell in hopes that some joke will land.
Bringing back memories of Steve Carell and Tina Fey in “Date Night” or Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in the underrated “Game Night,” Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) are a couple in need of help. We’re introduced to them as their one-night stand turns into a four-year relationship. Their smiles and doe-eyed romance turns into arguments about “The Amazing Race” and the value of documentaries.
As they’re driving to a party, their car gets hijacked by a mysterious man who uses it to repeatedly run over a person on a bicycle. After murdering the cyclist, he takes off and leaves Jibran and Leilani needing to prove their innocence. This leads to random encounters with Southern belles who threaten them with horses and bacon grease and a group of wild frat bros. It’s rarely done in a clever way, causing natural comedic talents like Nanjiani and Rae to spend most of the movie exhaustively straining the script for what amounts to mild chuckles.
The promise of what “The Lovebirds” could have been is evident through its thankfully short runtime. Showalter and his crew show they know how to add stakes to comedic setpiece with its use of dark lighting and slow, swiveling camerawork, like when Jibran and Leilani infiltrate a frathouse and a bar. Nanjiani and Rae also have wonderful chemistry that makes it tough to watch it be wasted as they perform a forced romantic moment like singing Katy Perry’s “Firework” together.
”The Lovebirds” was never going to save the mid-budget studio comedy, but it could have made a case for it. Instead, it’s another example of why the genre remains stale.