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'The Lovebirds' review: Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani elevate this lackluster comedy

Issa Rae as Leilani, Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran

Issa Rae as Leilani, Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran of "The Lovebirds" on Netflix. Credit: NETFLIX/Skip Bolen

MOVIE "The Lovebirds"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT New Orleans couple Leilani (Issa Rae, HBO's "Insecure") and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) find that the best therapy for a fractured relationship is to go on the run from the police as murder suspects needing to clear their names. This follows an incident in which they are carjacked and their attacker runs over a bicyclist multiple times, before fleeing and leaving them at the scene.

This comedy from director Michael Showalter (Nanjiani's "The Big Sick," "Wet Hot American Summer) was supposed to hit theaters from Paramount Pictures but instead had its rights sold to Netflix after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered multiplexes. It's streaming now.

MY SAY "The Lovebirds" has the good fortune of starring two of the funniest and most charming actors in Hollywood. Once you've cast Rae and Nanjiani as a couple in a movie like this, half the battle has been won. 

They could make just about any scene work thanks to their sheer screen presence and the movie is at its best when it understands that the stars are the attraction. They are a memorable duo, ably juggling deadpan sarcastic quips, the screenplay's action comedy demands and the art of conveying a clear sense of deep and meaningful love beneath a surface of intense bickering.

It almost doesn't matter that the screenplay, by Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, stands as a significant letdown, offering a painstakingly formulaic journey through comic territory that we have seen countless times before.

These actors deserve better writing than a scene wherein a character played by Anna Camp ties them up and offers the chance to either be kicked with a horse or have sizzling hot bacon thrown on them. This is forced, desperate humor that has absolutely no basis in reality. There's an elaborate "Eyes Wide Shut"-like orgy bit that falls completely flat.

Showalter has made a successful career out of projects that trade in crisp, absurdist humor. "The Lovebirds" is not one of them. His direction is not particularly engaged and it seems clear that he recognizes the by-the-numbers quality that frays the edges of this movie, rushing through the more predictable moments in the interest of highlighting as many character-driven notes as possible.

The funniest bits here are the small ones: Jibran and Leilani carefully and meticulously go about breaking through a window when they need to sneak into a frat boy's apartment. They're clearly nervous in doing so and unsure about the whole experience. Forget the reasons for the break-in, which have everything to do with the series of MacGuffins that define the plot, and focus instead on the ease and smarts with which the actors show us how these characters truly have no idea how to be criminals.

That's the essence of what great movie stars can do — enliven even the most pointless and dull of storylines by showing us that they're happening to relatable people. "The Lovebirds" is a long way from the defining projects in the careers of both stars, and it is unlikely to be remembered as anything more than a diversionary lark. But it does stand as a testament to the ways in which the right actors can elevate even the most lackluster of material.

BOTTOM LINE No movie starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani could possibly be without some merit and they do all they can to sustain "The Lovebirds," despite a rote screenplay.

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