'The Lovebirds' film still

From left, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani star in the new film "The Lovebirds."

Things were already tough between Leilani and Jibran. Then they got framed for murder.

A New Orleans couple approaching middle age, Leilani and Jibran (Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, respectively) are four years into a relationship that began as a one-night stand but led to an unexpected connection. The opening credits shuffle over a montage of their first full day together, hitting all the expected rom-com cutesy cues: the exchange of phone numbers, the walk in the park, the first true kiss. "You're unbelievable," Jibran croons as the screen slowly fades to black.

Four years later, we cut to him screaming those same words — though with far more bite — at Leilani across their apartment, where the two are embroiled in a vigorous spat over reality TV. But minutes later, as they're driving to a friend's dinner party, their relational frustrations bubble past the point of subtext. After a particularly ruthless exchange of barbs, they sit in stunned silence as the car hums down the street, and the end seems to have finally come.

Then, without warning, a body lands on the windshield. Before they can tell what's happened, their car is jacked, a man gets run over several times, and Leilani and Jibran are left helpless in the street next to a bloodied corpse as a pair of pedestrians happen upon the incriminating scene. Figuring no alibi will work, the titular twosome run for it, launching them into a quest to clear their names and turning "The Lovebirds" into something that's just as Michael Mann as it is Nancy Meyers.

With two-hander action-comedies, charisma and chemistry between leads can cover a multitude of cinematic sins like plot incoherence and prosaic direction; "48 Hrs." simply would not work without a pairing like Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, nor would "Lethal Weapon" without Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The same goes for "The Lovebirds," which, though lacking in the story department, is greatly elevated by the electricity between Rae and Nanjiani, two of their generation's most talented comic performers. Bringing an improvisational vibe to what might otherwise have been an entirely stale film, the pair's convincingness on a romantic level and snappy repartee render any scene they share watchable at worst, delightful at best.

But their sparks aren't capable of fully outshining the shadow cast by lazy writing and hit-or-miss direction, the latter courtesy of Michael Showalter, who previously directed Nanjiani in the far superior "The Big Sick." That film's dialogue-heavy, nearly action-bare script — which earned Nanjiani and his wife,  Emily V. Gordon, an Oscar nod — better served Showalter's behind-the-camera talent at facilitating conversations that are at once funny, fast-paced and surprisingly affecting. Here, his ability to focus on that specialty is diluted by intermittent, pedestrian action, which is uncomplicated enough to keep the film's runtime below 90 minutes. For the casual movie viewer, this will up the watchability factor, but may not appease those seeking more engaging laughs or thrills.

For its leading performances alone, "The Lovebirds" is worth a watch, especially amid the current movie drought. Though originally slated for theatrical release last month, it will now begin streaming Friday on Netflix. Better action-comedies are out there for anyone with the energy to dig through the crates (or streaming libraries), but if you crave something new, "The Lovebirds" will prove a passable fix.


Rating: 3/5


John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at jbattiston@loudountimes.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.

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