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Crimes of the heart – ‘The Lovebirds’

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When the central relationship of your movie – particularly if it’s a rom-com – really pops, it can make up for considerable shortcomings in other respects. If there’s genuine chemistry in that dynamic, then viewers will forgive a lot.

There’s no denying that Kumail Najiani and Issa Rae have that easy chemistry in “The Lovebirds.” Directed by Michael Showalter (who also directed Nanjiani in the excellent “The Big Sick”) from a script written by Aaron Abrams and Brendon Gall, it’s the story of a couple who, in the midst of what may be the end of their relationship, wind up entangled in a complex and weird mystery.

As far as this sort of action-adjacent rom-com goes, “The Lovebirds” is pretty familiar stuff. We’ve more or less seen this structure with these beats before – there’s nothing new here. But it still works, thanks to what Nanjiani and Rae bring to the table. Their energy elevates the movie to a significant degree, turning something that could have been generically forgettable into a worthwhile watch.

Ad executive Leilani (Rae) and documentary filmmaker Jibran (Nanjiani) have been a couple of four years. Their relationship has been quietly losing steam for some time, with the early delight established in a quick prologue before landing in the mutual irritation of the present day. She wants spontaneity, he’s all about plans and lists. He thinks she’s shallow, she thinks he’s pretentious. They’re both thinking about the end.

And then things get nuts.

Through a rapidly escalating series of events – Leilani and Jibran find themselves on the run for fear of being accused of a violent crime. The actions of a mysterious man with a moustache (and who may or may not be a cop) have left the bickering couple alone with no idea what to do and no one to rely on but one another.

Over the course of a single action-packed night, the couple becomes utterly embroiled in a convoluted criminal enterprise – one that people will kill to keep it secret – while also crossing paths with your standard-issue creepy mask-wearing rich person sex cult. It seems that people on all sides have it in for them; in all the madness, they realize that in the end, they really can rely on and trust one another.

Along the way, we get a handful of set piece sequences – an interrogation scene and some high-speed car stuff and the fancy dress infiltration of the aforementioned sex cult – and a whole lot of amped-up banter executed delightfully by Nanjiani and Rae, all culminating in a resolution that might not be all that surprising, but that mostly satisfies nevertheless.

“The Lovebirds” isn’t anything spectacular. You’re basically seen it before. But that’s OK – it still works. And it works because it is competently made – Showalter has a knack for this kind of slightly-off comedic filmmaking and for working with performers with unconventional comic sensibilities; he’s also very comfortable with the graphically slapstick-y physicality these action-adjacent comedies demand as well. It’s a good pairing of director and material.

Of course, the pairing that REALLY powers “The Lovebirds” is the dynamic duo of Nanjiani and Rae. Both actors are considerable comedic forces in their own rights, yes, but their genuine engagement serves as an exponential modifier. The two of them together truly are more than the sum of their parts, with each performer complimenting and pushing the other. The combination of their personae is the most significant factor in any success this film has.

The ensemble performs admirably for the most part. Paul Sparks plays it straight as the mustachioed mystery man, lending the performance an air of menace that the film definitely needs. Anna Camp shows up and has some fun as a wealthy society type also dealing with the conspiratorial fallout; she goes pretty hard. But there aren’t really a lot of memorable supporting performances; this movie is thoroughly and wholly concerned only with our leads.

And that’s as it should be. This sort of lead pairing has a long history in Hollywood; the right kind of screwball chemistry has been turning meh into pretty good and good into great for a century. For the record, we’re talking about the former leap when we talk about “The Lovebirds” – Nanjiani and Rae are great, but they aren’t miracle workers – but for a casual viewing experience, you could do a lot worse.

“The Lovebirds” is just fine, a formulaic film elevated out of mediocrity by the spectacular screen connection between its two leads. Thanks to the performances from Rae and Nanjiani, the movie manages to be better than itself. It’s fluffy fun, even when it tries to be gritty. That’s OK – sometimes, you just want something light. This isn’t a movie that you’ll carry with you when it’s over, but it’s a perfectly pleasant way to while away 90 minutes. That’s not nothing.

You won’t love “The Lovebirds,” but you’ll probably like it as a friend.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 26 May 2020 10:16

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