Issa Rae has a line near the end of “The Lovebirds” that may well have been uttered during whatever pitch meeting it took to get the movie made: “This is like ‘The Amazing Race,’ but with dead people.”
And so it is — sort of. Rae and Kumail Nanjiani run from place to place, frantically trying to decode clues and face challenges — but instead of Phil Keoghan welcoming them to the next pit stop or doling out roadblocks and fast forwards, they’ve got to keep from being killed while others around them aren’t so lucky.
Nanjiani and Rae are funny and likable people who try very hard to bring some life to this enterprise, but the action is too preposterous for the laughs to make much headway. They’re fun to watch, in a way, but you really wish they had something better to do.
And that’s a shame, because “The Lovebirds” — which was scheduled to premiere at SXSW and then open in theaters before Paramount sold it to Netflix in the wake of the coronavirus — had real promise. The last movie that Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter made together was 2017’s “The Big Sick,” a wondrous blend of comedy and drama based on the real-life relationship between Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, and written by the couple.
By contrast, “The Lovebirds,” which was written by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, isn’t based on anybody’s real life or on any semblance of the reality most of us experience. Sure, there’s real chemistry in the opening scene, a morning-after sequence in which Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) flirt easily after meeting for the first time the night before. And there’s a bit of lethal humor when we flash forward four years to find that the couple’s default mode has become arguing.
But the humor curdles with one particularly cruel exchange. “I don’t want to be with someone who’s so f—ing shallow,” Jibran says, and Leilani counters, “And I don’t want to be with someone who’s so satisfied with being a failure.”
They say this as they’re driving to a party, and no sooner have they realized that it means they just broke up than they crash into a man on a bicycle. He jumps up, panicked and bloody, and rides away — whereupon another man commandeers their car, says he’s a cop, runs over the cyclist several more times and then flees.
This, of course, is the point where an actual person would call the real cops — but after trying to argue with bystanders who take them for murderers, Jibran and Leilani figure that the cops won’t believe them because they sound stupid. Which, of course, they do — but, you know, they sound even stupider when they decide to solve the crime themselves.
There’s a racial component to this — one of the reasons they think they won’t be believed is because she’s black and he’s Arabic, with a beard, she says, that “looks like murder.” But the movie doesn’t spend much time considering that side of things; it’s in too much of a hurry to get to hijinks that include a Southern belle who offers them a choose-your-own-torture scenario, an apartment full of frat-boy blackmailers and some “Eyes Wide Shut”-style bingo.
Nobody they encounter along the way is any more believable than they are, not that it really matters — at a certain point, you simply recognize that what they’re doing makes no sense and you have to stop worrying about that. And then the question becomes a simple one: But is it entertaining?
Sadly, the answer is that it’s not entertaining enough. Nanjiani and Rae are gifted comedians who have their moments, and you’d probably root for them if you thought the stakes meant anything. But the film rushes to get to the next fistfight/chase scene/orgy, leaving behind a faint whiff of more persuasive (and funnier) innocents-up-the-creek capers like “After Hours” and “Game Night.”
Still, all the silliness is a bonding experience — at least for the characters, who are inevitably brought together by this insanity. Because really, what better way than a few murders to save a troubled relationship in 87 minutes or less?