(L-R) Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae in “The Lovebirds.” (Photo credit: Skip Bolen / Netflix)
Directed by: Michael Showalter
Written by: Aaron Abrams (story and screenplay by), Brendan Gall (story and screenplay by), Martin Gero (story by)
Starring: Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Nicholas X. Parsons, Kyle Bornheimer, Andrene Ward-Hammond
The Lovebirds is the kind of film we need in these trying times. It’s not a film that’s aiming to reinvent the wheel when it comes to romantic comedies—all it’s trying to do is entertain with a few well-placed laughs and gags. And it accomplishes that. But even without promising reinvention of the genre, The Lovebirds still manages to put its unique stamp on it, seeing how its leads are an African-American woman and a Pakistani-American man.
The fact that a non-white interracial couple is at the center of this otherwise racially nonspecific story is a quiet progression of the film industry. Usually when it comes to anything regarding interracial narratives, there’s a focus on how taxing it is for the characters in question. Do the parents like the couple? Who’s the racist plotting for them to be kept apart? How does society influence how the couple view themselves? The amount of obstacles could be listed ad nauseum. Those obstacles have been rightly investigated by filmmakers, white and non-white. But, those obstacles are sometimes used by the Hollywood machine to perpetuate their narrative that interracial relationships, and people of color in general, must always be viewed through these narrow confines.
However, none of that happens in The Lovebirds. Instead, we’re presented with a couple whose main struggles are standard rom-com issues—Leilani (Rae) feels like she’s ignored by Jibran (Nanjiani), while Jibran feels like Leilani doesn’t care about his life’s work as a documentarian. Leilani wants the picture-perfect Instagram life and she feels like Jibran is doing nothing to make his life progress. Meanwhile, Jibran keeps hiding is interests from her in fear that she’ll think he’s not up to snuff. Long story short, both are dealing with similar insecurities and neither one realize that their issues are two sides of the same coin. Instead, they blame each other until the fateful day they are put in the middle of a murder scheme.
The film doesn’t go without some commentary onAmerican life as a person of color—both fear going to the police for help because of how quick police are to stereotype people of color as criminals. But this commentary comes and goes just like how it would in real life for people of color. When you’re used to living in a prison-state such as the U.S., you become acclimated to its trappings so much that you need only mention them in passing when they come up in conversation. From what I gathered on the recent SXSW virtual Q&A with Rae and Nanjiani, the two actors added that big of commentary themselves. That makes sense, seeing how the screenwriters aren’t people of color.
Perhaps it’s an interesting byproduct of the film being written by white writers, but the film treats the characters’ race as matter-of-fact things, which turns out to be a refreshing change of pace. You can tell Leilani and Jibran aren’t white, so why belabor the point with hand-wringing over how or why they’re together? They’re together because they love each other, even if they can’t see it at certain points in the film.
Perhaps, for some viewers, their relationship might seem like it’s not founded on anything since we only see one portion of their courtship at the film’s beginning. Indeed, the film’s focus isn’t on the months and years of romance between Leilani and Jibran—we’re meeting this couple at their relationship’s rockiest point. For those who don’t see the chemistry, I understand. But, as a counter-argument, I’d offer this: as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of rom-coms anyway, I appreciated that there was less of a focus on lovey-dovey stuff.
Not every couple is as lovey-dovey as they were in their courtship, and that seems like the case for Leilani and Jibran. Perhaps I’m projecting a little, but since I’ve grown up with parents who didn’t go for pet names or PDA, I find Jibran and Leilani’s lack of outward romance refreshing. Even when they were fighting, you could tell their relationship was based on a friendship, and that is more meaningful to me than, let’s say, seeing Jibran do something like hold a boom-box over his head at Leilani’s window or hearing Leilani say something ridiculous like “You complete me.” Love can be the small stuff, too, such as Leilani watching Jibran’s documentary even when he was afraid to show it to her, or Jibran finally being vulnerable with Leilani and telling her how he feared he wasn’t good enough for her.
As for the film’s story, I feel like The Lovebirds didn’t do anything out of the ordinary—like I mentioned above, the film isn’t interested in completely reinventing the wheel. But it was entertaining nonetheless. It knows what it is—a fun crowd-pleaser—and it sought to fulfill its duty to the audience to be just sweet enough while providing an outlet for Rae and Nanjiani to play off of each other’s comedic timing. On those merits, the film works, so much so that it feels like it could be endlessly rewatchable. During the SXSW Q&A, Nanijani and Rae have talked about wanting to make more films together, and I’d be happy to see more films with the two of them playing comedic partners.
To me, The Lovebirds could easily become part of one’s “self-care” film kit, a movie to turn on whenever you feel depressed or low about something going on in your life. Like any good rom-com, it’ll brighten your day and make you feel less heartbroken while making you laugh. To me, that makes this film a winner. What also makes the film a winner is that it normalizes interracial relationships in a way that hasn’t been seen in entertainment yet. While not making a big deal about the elephant in the room, The Lovebirds proves that revolutions can be quiet, even nonchalant, but no less impactful.