"Why is this guy funny?" is an impossible question to answer, but I think I've figured out why Kumail Nanjiani is guaranteed to get a guffaw outta me every time he opens his mouth. His on-screen persona, from Dinesh on Silicon Valley, to his schmoozes on talk shows and podcasts, is of a sharp, insightful and erudite person… who will then smash his cred into a thousand pieces saying something truly dumb. It's a simple enough gimmick, but it works on me every time.
This formula (designed in a lab? stumbled upon accidentally? Nanjiani's actual personality?) is the spine of The Lovebirds, the latest film that was meant to come out in theaters pre-COVID-19, but has now gone direct to streaming. (In this case, via Netflix.) It's a good fit. This is an enjoyable and agreeable motion picture, and it brought 90 consecutive minutes of mirth to my home, but unlike Nanjiani's previous collaboration with director Michael Showalter, the based-on-reality The Big Sick, this is the definition of light entertainment. Even before the pandemic, I'm not sure this would have been a film deserving of calling a sitter or reserving tickets.
The Lovebirds opens with a cute prologue in which Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) get to know one another after an implied evening hookup. Right before our eyes they are falling in love. Smash cut to four years later and the pair are fighting about everything — from the lack of spontaneity in their intimate encounters to whether they'd have a shot on The Amazing Race. It's clear that this relationship is done. In the car, on the way to a party, they call it quits and that's when they literally crash into another film genre.
They hit a cyclist who is on the run from police. The cop does that "I need this car!" thing that happens in movies, and suddenly there is a chase. Jibran is in the backseat shouting out directions from an app, and Leilani is yelling at him for yelling. It's all very funny and the two have outstanding chemistry. (Of note: while Nanjiani and Rae are both known to write a lot of their own material, neither have screenplay credit here. They are, however, both executive producers.)
The cop corners the fleeing perp and then… he brutally smashes into him. And runs him over. Again and again. Okay, so he's not a cop. Now there's a dead body, Jibran and Leilani are standing next to it (he with blood on his coat), and witnesses are calling 911. They run, but not before stupidly saying their names loud enough for the good samaritans to hear them.
Thus begins an after-hours adventure through New Orleans. They know that as two people of color there is little chance their word will be taken should they turn themselves in to the authorities, so they decide, in the best screwball comedy fashion, to clear their own names. Patching together clues, they bumble through the underworld, uncovering a preposterous Illuminati-esque conspiracy involving masked millionaires, group sex, and, in one scene, a horse. In an effort to find the bad guy they also find (wait for it) love!
Showalter shoots the scenes of plot development and action completely subservient to the yuks. That's all for the best. As with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (to make a comparison that ought to endear me to the young readers of today) it's the rat-tat-tat of the zings, not the adventure, that makes this sort of thing work. I was also reminded of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery (there, that reference is only 27 years old), in which madcap danger rekindles romance for a perennially bickering couple.
And the yuks come in every flavor. There are clever-as-hell gags (no spoilers, but one derived from Queen lyrics floored me, as did a joke about, of all things, the mnemonic for remembering the color spectrum) and then there are moments where, basically, it's just Nanjiani and Rae making dopey faces and using a silly voice. High and low, everybody wins! And I mentioned the horse, right? There's a horse.
The Big Sick is one of the richest and best comedy films of this decade. So, yes, I'd love to see Nanjiani and Showalter (and co-author Emily V. Gordon) pull off another miracle like that. Until then, however, work like The Lovebirds is still worth cooing about.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Lovebirds premieres Friday, May 22 on Netflix.