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Review: Chaos finds couple in spunky Netflix rom-com 'The Lovebirds'

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are a couple falling apart just as they're tossed into a wild web of criminal activity

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Nothing brings the spark back to a relationship quite like dodging psychos and evading the law. 

So it goes in "The Lovebirds," a spirited romantic comedy about a couple who, just as they're breaking up — WHOMP! — accidentally hit a pedestrian with their car. This sets off a chain of events that has them dashing through New Orleans while both cops and killers hunt them down, and all that running brings an excitement that had gone missing from their relationship and makes them start to re-evaluate their decision to split with each other. 

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in "The Lovebirds."

It's standard issue average-couple-in-over-their-heads type stuff, but stars Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani have above average comic chops and chemistry together, which elevates "The Lovebirds" to a higher perch. 

Rae is Leilani, an ad exec who longs for the spontaneity and romance she no longer gets from Jibran (Nanjiani), her documentarian boyfriend. 

We first meet the pair when they're a new couple, sparks flying. Smash cut to four years later when those sparks have been extinguished and the couple is bored with each other, each personality tic that was once charming now an annoyance. Even a conversation about "The Amazing Race" turns into a fight. 

They come to the realization they're dunzo — even saying it out loud is difficult for them, yet at the same time voicing it provides a sort of relief — just as their car wallops a bicyclist who's riding by. 

Turns out he was fleeing from a guy who wants him dead, which puts Leilani and Jibran smack dab in the middle of a web of drug dealers, crooked cops and sex cults.

None of it is very believable, and the inconsistencies and improbabilities begin to grow tedious as the film, which takes place in a single night, progresses. At one point Leilani and Jibran find themselves at an "Eyes Wide Shut"-style costumed orgy, which makes the similarly themed "Date Night" or "Game Night" seem nuanced in comparison. 

Yet Rae and Nanjiani have strong comedic energy — as well as romantic electricity — and they make the material work. 

Rae (HBO's "Insecure"), who also created palpable romantic chemistry with LaKeith Stanfield in February's "The Photograph," is a force, and Nanjiani — newly buff from his Marvel makeover for "The Eternals" — brings a heat that wasn't previously in his arsenal. 

Put plainly, they're a likable, believable couple, which grounds the film even as the absurdity around them mounts. They even make a backseat singalong to Katy Perry's "Firework" pop, although the contrivance of the scene can be read on both their faces (Nanjiani's especially).

Director Michael Showalter, who also directed Nanjiani in "The Big Sick," highlights the humanity of his two leads even as the film grows preposterous. Few people would know what to do when running from the cops or when faced into a showdown with an armed gunman, and Showalter knows this, and puts viewers in the shoes of his two leads.  

Without Rae and Nanjiani it wouldn't work as well as it does. Luckily, they're two lovebirds with a song worth singing. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Lovebirds'

GRADE: B

Rated R: sexual content, language throughout and some violence

Running time: 87 minutes

On Netflix