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Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani star in Netflix's The Lovebirds.

Skip Bolen/The Associated Press

  • The Lovebirds
  • Directed by Michael Showalter
  • Written by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall
  • Classification R; 86 minutes

rating

2.5 out of 4 stars

Did you hear the one about the big-screen comedy? Regrettably, this set-up offers no real punchline. For the past few years, Hollywood studios have been slowly inching out of the big-screen comedy game, favouring high-priced, and potentially high-return, superhero franchises and action blockbusters. And that was before COVID-19 hit. Now, with studios turning into sinking ships, comedies are the first projects being tossed overboard into the vast streaming sea. (Apologies for the tortured metaphor; like any screenwriter, I’ll be the first to admit my reviews could always benefit from a high-priced punch-up job.)

Last week, Netflix took the Eric Andre/Lil Rel Howery comedy Bad Trip off MGM’s hands. The week before, Universal Pictures announced that instead of holding out hope for the return of the multiplex, it would toss one-time industry saviour Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island direct to premium video-on-demand. On the same day, Sony sold off Apatow acolyte Seth Rogen’s American Pickle to Warner Bros. for use on that company’s forthcoming streamer HBO Max. And kicking off this comedy-dump trend was The Lovebirds.

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Barely a week into the pandemic panic, Paramount washed its hands of this dark-edged rom-com that was set to open in theatres in April, selling it to Netflix despite a shiny-enough big-screen sheen. It stars Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, two rising, HBO-minted comedy stars who appeal to diverse audiences, and comes courtesy of Nanjiani’s The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, who has thus far into his career nicely balanced his absurdist tendencies with the obligations of multiplex-friendly comfort cinema.

Rae and Nanjiani play a couple headed toward a breakup who get mixed up in a strange conspiracy.

Skip Bolen/The Associated Press

Well, mostly. While The Lovebirds is funnier and better cast than about 85 per cent of Netflix’s original comedy films – I’m still awaiting my Globe and Mail danger pay after reviewing the David Spade movie The Wrong Missy last week – it also isn’t quite as witty as it thinks it is. Or should be, to earn the nearly forgotten high of a true all-theatre LOL moment.

A zany mix of dark comedy, slapstick, and high-concept adventure, The Lovebirds moves fast in the hopes that no one notices how messy its construction is. New Orleans documentarian Jibran (Nanjiani) and advertising creative Leilani (Rae) were once upon a time the couple everyone envied – sexy, funny, almost unbearably well-matched. Fast-forward four years, and their relationship has settled into a pattern of bickering, jealousy and passive-aggressiveness.

Just before they break up, though, a violent wackiness rears its head, with the two getting mixed up in a murder that spirals into a very hazy conspiracy involving crooked cops, frat-boy blackmailers, bacon-grease-obsessed politicians and a secret society that indulges in the odd orgy now and then. It is as if last year’s ultra-serious racial drama Queen & Slim was tossed into a blender with Nanjiani’s own recent comedy Stuber, but with leftover chunks of Eyes Wide Shut and the barely remembered Tina Fey/Steve Carell team-up Date Night. Maybe those ingredients go down well enough on their own, but mixed together, it’s all a bit hard to swallow.

Working with a sloppy script by Canadians Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, Showalter appears to be more of a gun-for-hire here than a director with any specific vision; he goes through the motions efficiently, but there is little enthusiasm, and the presumed big-laugh moments arrive muted and inert. All the while, I was hoping maybe Showalter would nudge the film into more energetic territory, either by slipping in some of his past collaborators (what I wouldn’t have given for a David Wain cameo) or appropriating some – really any! – kind of visual style.

The film's stars do what they can with a sloppy script.

Skip Bolen/The Associated Press

At least Showalter had the good sense to team up again with Nanjiani and bring Rae along for the ride. By all logic, Nanjiani’s shtick of deadpan cruelty should have lost its charm by now, yet the erstwhile Silicon Valley sidekick still knows how to curl himself around the core of a joke and make it spring. Rae gets slightly less to do than her co-star – Nanjiani gets easy laughs by placing himself in physical danger every other scene – but still grabs attention every moment that she’s afforded it.

Maybe, then, The Lovebirds doesn’t portend the death of the big-screen comedy. Perhaps Paramount knew that the film just wasn’t up to working on the big screen, and in COVID-19 found a good excuse to part ways. Then again, as I watched The Lovebirds at home last week, unshaven and wearing a pair of pants patched with stains of unknown recentness and provenance, I also very badly wanted to see it projected on the biggest screen possible, with as many strangers as could safely be crammed into one auditorium. Joke’s on me, I guess. For now.

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The Lovebirds is available to stream on Netflix starting May 22

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