Watching Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani riff off each other is intermittently fun, but that’s all there is to recommend “The Lovebirds,” a dark, somewhat chaotic romantic comedy. The movie’s flight path was redirected to Netflix, which, given its limited appeal, is likely the most hospitable roost for a concept that would have faced box-office headwinds.
“Lovebirds” falls within the Hitchcockian tradition of ordinary people thrust into fantastic, life-threatening situations, with the added element that the central couple’s relationship is altered by the adventure – a common trope in movies (“True Lies” comes to mind, even if one of them was actually leading a double life).
The main wrinkle here is that Leilani (Rae) and Jibran (Nanjiani) are on the verge of breaking up when the ordeal begins, as director Michael Showalter (reuniting with Nanjiani after the much superior “The Big Sick”) shifts rather jarringly from an opening-credit courtship sequence – as the two are falling in love – to when they’re at each other’s throats four years later, engaging in a stupid argument about how they’d fare on “The Amazing Race.”
In what feels like a blink, though, they’re running for their lives, after a shadowy killer (Paul Sparks) commandeers their car claiming to be a cop, then proceeds to run over a bicyclist with it. Spotted at the scene and connected to the murder weapon, they embark on a search to find out what’s going on, bringing them into a dark and dangerous web of encounters – or at least, as many as are necessary to pad out the movie to 87 minutes.
The two veterans of HBO comedies (her the still-going “Insecure,” him “Silicon Valley”) gamely give in to the absurdity of it all, while navigating threats – and one conspicuously “Eyes Wide Shut” interlude – telegraphically designed to bring them closer together.
Still, the journey proceeds almost as if on auto pilot, punctuated by only the occasional moment that actually spark to life, like the two belting out Katy Perry’s “Firework” together during a fleeting respite from the danger.
This is, pretty transparently, one of those exercises wholly reliant on the stars to distinguish it, and they carry things well enough. It’s also the sort of low-octane ride that has found luring people out of the house increasingly difficult, so among those movies forced to bypass theaters, “The Lovebirds” probably isn’t sacrificing much.
Mostly, the film can be seen as the latest modest steppingstone for its stars. Rae is coming off another romance, “The Photograph” (which opened on Valentine’s Day, seemingly a lifetime ago), and Nanjiani – after his breakout turn with the autobiographical “The Big Sick” and the disappointing “Stuber” – adds another stop before his buffed-up roie in Marvel’s “The Eternals.”
Charitably, “The Lovebirds” isn’t bad, just whatever the cinematic opposite of buffed up would be. In that sense, it’s best suited for those who might be intrigued by the pairing, without feeling motivated enough to leave their nests.
“The Lovebirds” premieres May 22 on Netflix.