Two years ago, Paramount got cold feet, and decided presumptuously to cut its losses by selling Netflix the international distribution rights to Annihilation " just 17 days after its US premiere. This unconventional distribution deal meant most of us outside the US never got the opportunity to watch Alex Garland's spectacular sci-fi thriller in cinemas.
In April this year, the studio cut a similar deal with the streaming giant for The Lovebirds. Not because they thought the Issa Rae-Kumail Nanjiani rom-com was "too intellectual" or "too complicated" like they assumed with Annihilation, but because of the indefinite closure of movie theatres with the coronavirus outbreak.
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With theatres besieged by the ongoing crisis and Hollywood's 2020 movie calendar completely disrupted, Netflix and the streaming services have brought the summer movie season into our living rooms, essentially ensuring we do not run out of things to watch.
Frankly, The Lovebirds feels more at home on Netflix. It has got about as much ingenuity that can be coded into its algorithm. Of course, the intention is to entertain, not to reinvent the rom-com, but it does run through some familiar junctures with a pep in its step.
Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) are a couple on the verge of breaking up when a man claiming to be a policeman (Paul Sparks) takes control of their car to chase after a bicycle messenger. What Michael Shannon fails to accomplish through the entire runtime of Premium Rush happens in a single car chase scene: the man catches up to the bicycle messenger, and runs him over until he is dead before fleeing the crime scene. Leilani and Jibran are now left to bear the brunt. They cannot call the cops worried they will see them as suspects based simply on their skin colour. So they decide to become fugitives and solve the crime themselves in order to clear their names. From here, it becomes a case of "let's see all the absurd detours we can take till the gas runs out."
We get a loose assortment of rom-com and murder-mystery codes compiled to satisfy the different demographics of Netflix subscribers. Rae and Nanjiani deftly navigate these shifting narrative tides on a dime. In rom-com-speak, they have you at hello. At first glance, they might look like a pairing that came out of nowhere. But they have a convincing enough chemistry to make the relationship seem real, even if the dilemma they find themselves in feels like nothing but a lazy screenwriter's concoction.
Jibran is a documentary filmmaker; Leilani an advertising executive. In less than three minutes, we jump forward four years, from the first kiss to minutes before their breakup. A seemingly harmless argument over the possibility of them winning The Amazing Race and the rules of orgy organising turns into a heated contest of one-upmanship, full of personal disses and spiteful soundbites of a couple about to separate. She calls him a "failure," dismissing documentaries as "reality shows that nobody watches." He calls her "shallow," censuring her social media obsession. But you can easily recognise the rom-com impulses behind all the bickering. All they need is one "batshit crazy night" of adventure " being embroiled in a criminal conspiracy of New Orleans' orgiastic netherworld " to realise they still love each other.
Speaking of orgies, Jibran and Leilani infiltrate a secret society of high-ranking officials and congressmen in masks and robes, that seems like a wink to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Playing the wife of a senator, Anna Camp rechannels her True Blood villainy in an extended guest appearance. When we first meet her in her trench coat and slouch hat, you might mistake her for Veronica Lake in a film noir. Getting her Southern drawl on, she gives the tied-up lovebirds their preferred choice of torture " hot bacon grease to the face or whatever is hiding behind a door " in a send-up of Deal or No Deal. It does occasionally feel like director Michael Showalter is trying to cram a whole season's worth of sketches into a single film. The film aims for the high LOLs, but they mostly register as low chuckles. For instance, when Jibran and Leilani intimidate a guy for information, their tough-guy act is as forceful as the humour.
Nanjiani's more tragicomic turn in The Big Sick (based on his own real-life love story with writer Emily V Gordon) proved he can pull off characters other than the token unlucky-in-love nerd, the only role Hollywood thinks brown actors are meant to play. Jibran is the ideal buffer before he gets all beefed up in The Eternals, and we lose him to the Disney-Marvel entertainment machine.
Rae continues her transition from TV to reliable comedy lead, hitting each setup (whether they land or not) with endearing enthusiasm. She keeps the energy levels up to make this stock time-killer a breezy enough 80-odd minutes. Unfortunately, the film just is not worthy of the talent involved.
The problem with The Lovebirds is it takes two of the funniest people, and puts them in some of the unfunniest of circumstances. The film is not boring by any stretch of the imagination; it is just not the kind of movie you would have paid full price to see if the theatres were still running. However, for a lockdown movie, it sets a low enough bar, and hops over it leisurely.
The Lovebirds is now streaming on Netflix.
All images from Netflix.