Creating unforgettable cinema isn’t easy, but neither is creating forgettable cinema: goofy, likable comedy of the sort that slides through your mind, leaving behind that most easily patronised of movie effects – a good feeling. The Lovebirds, by screenwriter Aaron Abrams and director Michael Showalter, is like this, a wacky romcom romp (rompcom?) showcasing a bizarre, spoofy twist on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It’s something you might watch on a plane. Right now, that’s no putdown: an unappreciated comfort from happier times.
Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae play Jibran and Leilani, young professionals in New Orleans who hooked up three years before the action begins, moved in together shortly afterwards and found that their relationship began to deteriorate.
Domestic intimacy has made each partner profoundly unimpressed by the other’s professional life. Jibran is a self-described documentary film-maker who is reluctant to show his great work to anyone and will reveal only that it is about financial irregularity in the world of education, a subject that stuns Leilani with pure boredom and irritation. As for Leilani, she works in an ad agency and owes her career to a commercial for body wash, based on her own experience in college of experimentally having sex with an unattractive man due to his pleasant skin aroma.
Driving one evening to a dinner party, they have another argument and realise simultaneously their relationship is over. Jibran takes his eyes off the road to gaze sadly into the eyes of his now ex-partner who gazes sadly into his. There is melancholy and even grief in both – and then they crash into a murderous criminal situation involving an occult secret society. Jibran and Leilani must run for their lives, and use their wits to solve a crime that the cops might be about to pin on them. Could it be that this appalling new scenario will reignite their love?
From here on, the movie depends on simply getting the couple skittering from one farcical situation to another, to the accompaniment of an ironised bantery-squabbly argument about what they are going to do: the 21st-century equivalent of screwball. They argue about the meaning of “fuckboy”; they argue about the element of spontaneity necessary for an orgy; they argue about whether it is pretentious to call a fire escape a “catwalk”; they argue about the lyrics, “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do.”
There is a strange moment when they are imprisoned by the bad guys and threatened with a certain type of torture: being kicked by a horse, which has apparently been brought here for the specific purpose of meting out barnyard related violence. Then it is over, and the surreality consists in never giving the horse a backward glance.
Nanijani and Rae work well together, although “chemistry” is perhaps a stretch: there was more of a genuine romantic spark between Nanijani and his erstwhile co-star Zoe Kazan in his 2017 film The Big Sick, which was also directed by Showalter, and that probably had more jeopardy and more about being in love. The Lovebirds is pretty lightweight – which is how it can take off.
• The Lovebirds is on Netflix from 22 May.