Every couple, like the one in The Lovebirds, wants to believe that they have it figured out; that they’ve somehow tapped into the secret to a functional relationship; and that theirs is the perfect partnership which thrives on nonverbal communication and shared goals. Every couple also wants to believe that, when dropped into an impossible situation, their bond is strong enough to find the way out. For even if they’re two ordinary people when apart, they can be extraordinary together—whether it’s saving a struggling relationship or singlehandedly solving a murder-mystery-inside-a-cult-conspiracy.
You laugh, but your next thought was likely “…huh.” And that’s what Netflix’s The Lovebirds does—warms you up with some familiar jokes about how easily modern dating shifts from casual to something more, and then cuts to the quick with real talk about how much of a mystery an actual relationship is.
When we first meet Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani), they’re riding the high of a great first date that bled into the next morning, and beyond. As they spend the whole day together, each is besotted, peeking at the other to see if their feelings are mirrored. Then we jump ahead four years where they have stared at each other for so long that they know every imperfection, and then have stopped looking altogether.
While en route in what feels like a routine weekend at a friends’ party, they have one of those standard couple’s fights that suddenly escalates into a full-blown breakup, spurred on by years of resentment and unhappiness. It’s one of the movie’s most earnest moments. Yet before they (or we) can even process what’s happened, they hit a guy on a bike. Don’t worry, he’s not dead. That comes later when a mustachioed stranger claiming to be a cop immediately commandeers their car at the site of the accident. That stranger then hits the biker again, and then backs up over the body in reverse, just to be sure. As Jibran and Leilani watch the “cop” flee and stare down at a dead body, they suddenly go from recent exes to murder suspects.
Unless. Unless They, as a proper noun, are the rare couple that can work together to solve the impossible situation. Not their relationship, because that’s already done for. Rather they’re trying to avoid a different type of life sentence: in prison.
In what has become a familiar narrative blueprint for this growing subgenre of mysteries doubling as couple’s therapy, the pair is compelled to follow a series of clues, retrace their unintentional victim’s steps around New Orleans, and encounter all sorts of unsavory types. What gives their story more dire stakes than, say Game Night or Netflix’s very own Murder Mystery, is the color of their skin, and the automatic assumption that they are already suspects no matter how innocent they are. Yet despite sharing a premise (in the broadest sense) with Queen & Slim, The Lovebirds finds a way to cleverly subvert that story too.
Jibran and Leilani’s relationship feels wonderfully lived-in—making fun of each other with the ease and familiarity of a shared life. There’s long-winded riffs about the most mundane couple shit that delightfully pays off when you least expect it. It’s clear that Rae and Nanjiani really dug down into who their characters are, both as individuals and as a dysfunctional unit. If anything, that relatability comes through the best not in the cutesy banter, but in all their little fractures. Every scene, while treading the typical plot beats of this kind of story—surviving interrogation, donning disguises, doing some interrogating of their own—is weighted down by their specific baggage in a way that makes the absurd feel authentic.
The thing is, those lovebirds we glimpsed at the start of the movie most likely would not have been up to this challenge; it would’ve been too early in their relationship to commit to something like a murder mystery. But Leilani and Jibran, having weathered four years of disappointments in her shallowness and his lack of self-worth, know what it is to try just one more time to achieve that unlikeliest of outcomes.
The trailer lays out the general set-pieces of their crazy night, from an ominous barn to a frat bro crash pad, to an auditorium where some rich folks look to be cosplaying Eyes Wide Shut. Yet going into The Lovebirds already knowing the stops doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.
Rather, it’s like The Amazing Race, a fact the film helpfully highlights when Leilani wonders why their adventure can’t be like her favorite reality TV show. The surprise is less where they go than what they do when they get there. And The Lovebirds’ action does have the frenetic, infectious feel of reality television, inspiring viewers to cheer on the underdog less out of their innate skill than sheer likeability. Jibran and Leilani are those compelling underdogs. No other couple would go through exactly this series of events the way they do; and honestly, no other duo would be as fun to watch.
Still, the movie does suffer from some lulls in the action. Even when they’re racing to their next rendezvous, the couple’s banter is more deadpan than anything else. Sometimes it’s an amusing contrast to the high stakes of the situation. At other points, you may find yourself wishing that more scenes had the same bubbly kind of energy found in the third act when Leilani amps Jibran up with a Katy Perry song as they drive to their fates.
As an action-mystery, The Lovebirds is a little imbalanced and imperfect. As a portrait of a couple rediscovering everything they like about each other, it’s charming and stubbornly hopeful. The old dating adage comes to mind: Every relationship ends, until it doesn’t. Every mystery is unsolvable, until it is.
The Lovebirds is available on Netflix on May 22.