Most romantic comedies don’t open with an argument—especially not one involving the two main characters. But that’s just one of many ways Michael Showalter’s new film The Lovebirds shakes up the rom-com rubric. The couple in question, Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani), are at each other’s throats when we first meet them in real time, and while the disagreement (about whether or not they’d win The Amazing Race) is amusing, it’s also a little sad and exhausting—especially after witnessing their sweet meet-cute, which occupies the film’s first few minutes. But, for anyone in a relationship, the sound of their petty barks is all too familiar.
“Sad and exhausting” aren’t words that describe the rest of the movie, though, which finds Leilani and Jibran embroiled in a wacky murder mystery. The inciting incident—the murder itself, for which Leilani and Jibran are not at all guilty—arrives right on cue nine minutes in, and from then on the movie never slows down in a snappy, Superbad-esque style. While it’s not the most succinct one-day movie you’ll ever see (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Before trilogy certainly have the hold on the titles for best day-long plots), The Lovebirds, originally planned for an April 3 theatrical release, is still quick-paced enough to hold your attention for the full (but brief) 86 minutes.
Where Before Sunrise walked its main characters through the charming streets of Vienna and Bueller ushered Ferris and crew from one Chicago landmark to the next, The Lovebirds takes us on a groovy journey through a city that doesn’t seem to get near enough screen time in modern movies: New Orleans. If you’ve visited the city before, you’ll recognize the St. Charles streetcar, the long stretches of road separated by green medians and the drunk college students wearing oversized Mardi Gras beads. Since it’s so rare to see one of the South’s most beautiful and dynamic cities on screen in a movie of this budget and reach, it’s a shame that The Lovebirds feeds national audiences a tourist-trap version of The Big Easy: As it turns out, the murder is part of a bigger plot involving some kind of voodoo sex cult inhabited by mask-wearing perverts, and that just feels like a cheap shot at the city stereotyped for its boozy, freewheelin’ reputation.
But, still, it’s a nice change of pace to see a movie like this take place in Nola as opposed to New York, and Leilani’s and Jibran’s hijinks-filled voyage through the city on this cursed night is a fun, slapstick romp that merges the buddy-cop, crime thriller and rom-com genres in a mostly seamless fashion. Rae and Nanjiani have an undeniable comedic connection that, while neither of their best roles, still feels genuine. After fearing that they’d be blamed for the murder, they flee the scene, avoid the cops at all costs and race through New Orleans in an attempt to solve the crime and clear their own names, even making it to the dinner party they were supposed to attend in the process. It’s a little too silly at times (especially when Anna Camp takes control of the villain role and threatens to torture our heroes with scalding bacon grease), but The Lovebirds is at its best when focusing on the relationship at the heart of the story. There’s plenty of wild goose chases and creepy Mardi Gras masks and even an on-stage orgy, but all the hoopla is just a vehicle for telling the story of two people who are imperfectly entwined, just like every other couple to ever exist. It may be a goofy summer crime flick, but The Lovebirds is also about how no relationship is perfect, no matter how shiny it may look from the outside.
Director: Michael Showalter
Writer: Brendan Gall, Aaron Abrams(screenplay by);
Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, Martin Gero (story by)
Starring: Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp
Release Date: May 22, 2020 (Netflix)
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her on Twitter.