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Movie review: Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani bring the laughs in ‘Lovebirds’

Al Alexander
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Issa Rae as Leilani, Kumail Nanjiana as Jibran of "The Lovebirds."

We all could use a great comedy about now, but in the absence of that, the fitfully entertaining “The Lovebirds” will do. Booted from its April 3 debut in theaters by the coronavirus, the story of a warring couple stumbling into a night of criminal misadventure has landed unexpectedly on Netflix, one of the few venues where rom-coms still thrive. And this one pulsates courtesy of its fetching leads, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani.

They’re a mixed-race couple at the end of their romantic rope. What was once cooing has digressed into constant bickering. And at the start of director Michael Showalter’s follow-up to the Nanjiani-penned “The Big Sick,” Leilani and Jibran mutually agree to go their separate ways. But first, they must maintain appearances by attending a dinner party way down south in New Orleans. Ah, but a funny (well, mildly funny) thing occurs on the way to the soiree involving a bicyclist, a murderous cop and a blackmailed congressman. Suddenly, their love and deep knowledge of each other become essential to their survival.

There’s nothing remotely original on the minds of co-writers Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gali, cribbing generously from other wild-evening-on-the-town flicks like “After Hours,” “Game Night” and “Date Night,” spiced with a pinch of “Eyes Wide Shut.” It’s an understatement to say they push the definition of plagiary to Mike Barnicle proportions. And had they not had the fortune to land Rae and Nanjiani, “Lovebirds” probably wouldn’t be a night to remember.

You wouldn’t think it, but in action the chemistry between the two comedians emerges a no-brainer. Which is apropos since most of “The Lovebirds” is brain-free. Why, you ask yourself, does love have to be so stupid? Apparently, Rae and Nanjiani asked themselves the same question, as they often override the shallow script by engagingly engaging in movie-saving improvisation. Their timing is impeccable and their delivery sly and subtle.

It doesn’t always work, but the stars render you eager to accompany them on a dusk-to-dawn odyssey in which just about everything is thrown at Leilani and Jibran from boiling bacon grease to horrendous dialogue. The strength of both actors is their ability to sell the predictable path in which adversity only makes Leilani and Jibran’s threadbare bond grow sturdier. Might they decide to give love a second chance - provided they survive the night? Duh!

Rae and Nanjiani generously give more than they receive from Showalter and the writers, who don’t seem to be trying. For most of the blessedly short 85 minutes, little of what transpires makes sense. Nor is it logical, as is the case when the pair makes a confounding stop at an “Eyes Wide Shut” orgy complete with creepy bird masks. If the scene is meant as parody, it’s off the mark. And don’t get me started on all the shameless plugs for “Mythbusters” and “The Amazing Race,” which like the movie’s distributor, Paramount, is a wholly owned property of Viacom. Ain’t synergy grand?

Despite its faults, “The Lovebirds” is worth your time, simply because Rae and Nanjiani are such delightful company. They’re TV’s version of comfort food, like chicken gumbo, going down easy in the Big Easy.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“The Lovebirds”
Cast includes Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani. Premiering May 22 on Netflix.
(R for sexual content, language throughout and some violence.)
Grade: B-