Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are each hilarious on their own, but together they can plow through any genre Hollywood throws at them. Without ignoring familiar rom-com beats, the one thing that distinguishes Michael Showalter’s “The Lovebirds“ for the better is its high-wire physical comedy. Rae and Nanjiani launch themselves from one catastrophe to the next, never missing an opportunity to commiserate or exaggerate every exasperated feeling to the nth degree. Ultimately, Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall’s convoluted “mistaken identity” script becomes a footnote to the real main attraction: major stars with unbeatable and transfixing chemistry.
The HBO alumni play Leilani and Jibran, two New Orleans thirty-somethings who effortlessly fall into each other’s affections after a great “hookup” demands return investment. Watching their one-night stand blossom into a seemingly destined romance, viewers assume the next four years will only strengthen Leilani and Jibran’s union. It turns out the honeymoon phase wants its money back. The pair fight about minuscule concerns, clearly hiding the larger divide that’s grown between them because of diverging aspirations. Leilani works for an ad agency but feels like she hasn’t figured out her life just yet. She wants to support Jibran’s foray into documentary filmmaking but assumes her input isn’t valued since he never shares his pre-edited footage. Conversely, Jibran’s insecurities flair up because he notices Leilani pays more attention to a colleague than his own accomplishments or lack thereof.
Their underlying problems erupt into a screaming match while driving to their friends’ dinner party one evening. Words carry deep wounds with guaranteed scarring, leading to a decisive yet upsetting breakup mid-ride. However, their partnership for the remainder of the night is far from over. During their blowup, Jibran accidentally runs into a speeding biker in an alley. Refusing an ambulance, the injured biker runs off but is chased by a man claiming to be a cop, who then commandeers Jibran’s car without protest. When chase turns into a vehicular homicide, the mystery mustached man (Paul Sparks) flees the murder scene, leaving partial witnesses to report the unlucky couple to the authorities.
The screenplay makes brief mention of law enforcement assuming guilt because of race, but “The Lovebirds” skims through this concern with surface worry. Rather than use the story to highlight this legitimate systemic prejudice, it pivots to slapstick humor. Rae and Nanjiani fumble, bumble, stumble, tackle, and pummel their way through every dastardly encounter while trying to prove their innocence. Rae especially enchants with expressiveness, her confounded commentary deriving unprepared laughter. Meanwhile, Nanjiani is his usual endearing self of subtly breaking character to laugh at his own jokes mid-delivery. The duo turn awkward high-stakes adaptation into an impressive display of physical acting.
Unlike Showalter and Nanjiani’s previous collaboration, “The Big Sick,” this narrative has an ephemeral impact. Other than being a party city that somewhat parallels the wild adventure Leilani and Jibran experience, New Orleans is treated with interchangeable metropolitan mayhem. The mystery itself has something to do with blackmailing government officials, secret societies, and assassins for hire, but even that gets ignored for Rae and Nanjiani’s antics on overdrive. When the chemistry is so magnetic that it becomes the sole driving force, it’s easy to forgive a plot with meager goals in mind. If anything, this romantic romp serves as an enormous stage for two comic legends in the making to cement their Hollywood tenure.