Romantic comedies often treat us to relationships’ beginnings — even if they come on the heels of breakups. So it’s always refreshing when a film takes a different approach, especially if it’s pulled off as well as it is in The Lovebirds, the new feature from director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) that asks whether love that has dimmed can be rekindled by way of solving a murder.
While we do get to see our charming protagonists Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani, also from The Big Sick) and Leilani (Issa Rae, HBO’s “Insecure”) meet and fall hard for one another in a sweet opening-scene montage, we quickly jump to four years — and a lot of fights — later, when the pair’s early, winsome flirtations have evolved into petty, barbed battles.
After glumly deciding to break up on the way to a friend’s dinner party, they hit a cyclist on the streets of New Orleans. He’s injured but seems panicked and runs off. Shortly after, a man claiming to be a cop hijacks their car, kills the cyclist (for real this time) and flees, leaving the bewildered Jibran and Leilani at the scene of the crime.
Due to a couple of witnesses appearing at exactly the wrong moment and because Leilani and Leilani are both people of color, they presume they’ll be the prime suspects and decide to solve the mystery themselves. Determined to track down the murderer (whom they dub “Mustache”) themselves rather than going to the police, they chase clues through The Big Easy — during Mardi Gras, no less — to seedy nightclubs, fraternity crashpads, Deep South stables and secret society parties.
It’s hard not to have fun with our two leads, who still seem compatible even though they rarely stop bickering. Although this makes their relationship a little one note, especially since there’s (not really a spoiler alert) never any question they’re going to make it, the genuinely funny script and the actors’ talent keep the film afloat. Rae is especially gorgeous and driven here, and Nanjiani’s Jibran often seems a little startled by his good luck wooing her, yet he charms us by consistently displaying the courage that underlies his anxious exterior. They’re such a likable couple that everyone — even the bad guys — are rooting for them to get back together.
The humor is consistently strong and refreshingly savvy. The characters wrangle with tough issues like racism, wealth inequality and political corruption, layered into far-fetched but highly entertaining scenarios. While some of these feel clichéd — like the Eyes Wide Shut masked soiree they attend near the film’s climax — it’s still fun to spend some time with our couple, who often function as a stand-in for the audience, experiencing what’s happening around them with a guileless naiveté.
Or maybe that’s just because I resonated with them so much. As an Ashevillean, I related to the way they simply live in their city while visitors flock around them. I also appreciated the more real moments of their relationship, such as when Leilani knows exactly how to cheer Jibran up or when he pauses to allow space for a sweet moment to play out. Characters throughout the film comment on how hard relationships are — and how social media, which positions the realm of double taps and retweets literally at our fingertips, creates more distance between us and the people we actually know and love. A murder pushes Jibran and Leilani to remember why it’s worth it to stay together, but hopefully the rest of us don’t have to take things quite that far.
Available to stream via Netflix