By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Is your partner getting just a little too familiar? Feeling the doldrums of a love life that is all work and no play? You too can resurrect your relationship by being implicated in and solving a murder! So says the movie “Lovebirds,” starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. Originally set to release in April, due to the coronavirus, the film was moved to a Netflix premiere on May 22.
We first meet Jibran and Leilani when they fall madly in love. A couple of years later, they are still together, but are stuck in the tedium of daily routine and repeated misunderstandings.
The plot is similar to that of Nanjiani’s “Stuber,” except in place of a confused Uber driver, substitute a bickering couple that is still in love but just doesn’t know it yet. And that’s where solving a crime helps! In the process, the couple practices crucial relationship lifesavers they have been missing: trust in each other, and doing something different. Probably a therapist would recommend something more like bungee jumping —but turns out this unsolicited escapade is just what the doctor ordered.
As if in an Absurdist play, Jibran and Leilani find it impossible to communicate. While they argue constantly, nothing actually gets said. Perhaps because neither side listens, but also because they just don’t say the right things. Not until adversity puts them into a state of stress do they start to come out with the deeper truths that are essential for salvaging something good. Through Leilani and Jibran’s not really purposeful confessions—it all just comes out in bits and pieces while being tortured by a crazy lady, lying to friends, and attending freaky cult meetings—the audience also re-learns something about how we interact with other humans. We never really know what the other person is thinking. We are often wrong about what we think the other person is thinking. Our own insecurities drive our relationships over cliffs, or bodies.
The treat in the movie is the humorous and ongoing banter between Leilani and Jibran. And also, watching them walk around in the get-ups they buy in a New Orleans pharmacy. You just cannot get enough of a gorgeous woman in a unicorn hoodie or a handsome man in a gold baseball jacket. There are plenty of laughs to be had, scattered at reassuring intervals, and the danger, though real, is never too intense to disrupt the overall conviction that this is a romantic comedy. Being that in Nanjiani’s first movie, he was acting with his actual wife, it took a minute to adjust to Rae playing his paramour, and another minute to adjust to the supersonic speed of their verbal swordplay, but once the pace is established, it’s easy to roll with it. Due to the expertly sarcastic delivery, the couple’s criticisms of each other are funny to us, if not to them, such as when Jibran taunts Leilani that she won’t be able to put her phone down—somebody might have tweeted something —and she, in fact, cannot resist looking. But it’s not funny to them because, like in real life, eventually we’re not funny to each other anymore when a relationship sours.
Also welcome in the movie is that neither of the couple is white, something we still don’t see enough of when it comes to romantic leads on the movie screen in the United States. The fact that one of them is brown and the other is Black is occasionally a topic of jest in the movie that, instead of making light, convinces us that race is a daily consideration for them that they just get used to, but not really. The scene that we all know from the preview, when the cops roll by and the couple thinks they are onto them, but actually, the cops are just “regular racists” is as hilarious and telling when we see it in context in the film. Or when Leilani tells Jibran he has a “terrorist beard” and thus should not turn himself in, we laugh, but also know that’s what the police might really think.
“Lovebirds” is a solid date movie, with plenty of humor and excitement, two attractive and charismatic leads that most of us will enjoy watching, in a relationship bind that most of us will find familiar. The circumstances they are thrown into might be exaggerated, but the movie still points out that, in order to keep the heart fires burning, you’ve got to say what’s in your heart—and you’ve got to throw in some chili peppers sometimes.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.