There is nearly always a smirk of veiled anticipation when a plot setup meets a full-stop right after a descriptive peak with the zinger transition of “hi-jinks ensue.” Digging into the meaning and origin of that phrase apparently goes back centuries. In describing movies, using that classic adage is an attempt at “less being more” while completely winking at you that so much more could be said about what happens. The Lovebirds, premiering on Netflix on May 22, is the kind of place where you drop “hi-jinks ensue” and run with it.
Here’s the rub though. For “hi-jinks ensue” to work and live up to its promise, you need strong and effective events to come before and after when that phrase is planted. Have a weak setup and the absurdity of hi-jinks after can feel like a jolting improvement or tail-spinning crash. Have a great setup and the hi-jinks that follow can either evolve or devolve the auspicious start. This “one wild night” romp has about half of each measure in that balance.
When we meet Issa Rae’s Leilani and Kumail Nanjiani’s Jibran, they are in the throes of initial attraction. They’re on a date they don’t want to end. The seductive pick-up conversations are hot and the embraces are hotter. Every back-and-forth line comes from a smooth voice and oozes with come-hither body language of postures, proximity, and the edges of contact. After the first ten minutes of The Lovebirds you’re going to be auditioning your own “I Want to Kiss You Face” and having it judged. Just you wait.
Cut to four years later and the cohabitating New Orleanians are at each other’s throats, nagging and shouting from rooms apart. Their passive aggressive words are filled with frustration and indignation, where any closeness looks distant or uncomfortable compared to earlier in their relationship. Somewhere, selfish pursuits from both of them have replaced adoration. They don’t speak up about what’s really bothering them and nitpick inconsequential BS instead.
What would it take to rattle a failing relationship? If the choices to answer this lesson’s question where on a Wheel of Fortune spinner, “murder” would be like the dreaded “Bankrupt” landing slot. In a flurry of events on the way to a social party moments after agreeing to break up, Jibran and Leilani land on that very dark wedge as unwilling witnesses and borderline participants to a crime. From a very different and far more jovial place than Queen & Slim, they come up with the “best bad idea.” They run.
And, with that, hi-jinks ensue, and this review’s faucet of furtive flow ceases. The less you see coming the better. The Lovebirds puts this frazzled breakup on blast with a dippy concert of calamity. Much like Game Night a few years back, the pratfalls before our central couple can be ingeniously hilarious while others over-stretch the freedom of preposterousness we grant movies like these. Comedy in this realm is a fickle SOB and often depends on what level of insanity and perceived mistakes each viewer is willing to accept.
What smooths the questionable parody of this caper comedy is the people delivering the jokes. Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are a vivid pair of talents to combine. These motormouths turn on a dime. Issa has that enormous smile that mirrors vitriol and vigor. Kumail has those eyes and Eugene Levy-level eyebrows that can dance with dread or delight. Each take turns throughout this punchlined plot being the target of blame or the pure-dumb-luck savior for the duo. Their fascinating dynamics radiate high appeal.
Somewhere, Leilani and Jibran went from comfortable to miserable. It’s not that they can’t speak their minds—they do that incessantly to test each other’s limits. It’s that they don’t speak from their hearts. No matter the madcap swerves and predicaments that tumble before these two, it’s all pushing against the wavering realization towards their connection and a romantic bond that hasn’t completely broken. The reactions of each significant other watching their partners being thrust into a situation of distress is an extreme test of that care level.
Much of their banter, useless information monologues, and competitive cut-downs feel incredibly improvised. Credit editors Vince Filippone (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) and Robert Nassau (The Big Sick) for chopping together their chops with crisp pacing. If their jumpy jabbering isn’t ad-libbed, then kudos to the writing/story team of Hannibal actor Aaron Abrams, The Go-Getters’ Brendan Gall, and Blindspot creator Martin Gero. For example, any three cocktail napkin idea men that can take the clunker self-aware line of “help me come up with something believable” and then spin it for a laugh deserves a dollar in the tip jar.
Beyond the dialogue, those writers and The Big Sick director Michael Showalter assembled a semi-crafty plot course that is far from predictable and does not entirely wear out its freshness or welcome in a tidy 86 minutes. Far less and far worse has been slapped together for date night couch watch. Granted, once someone sees The Lovebirds and the hi-jinks that ensue, someone will say it shouldn’t take this much, per se, but where’s the fun in less?