The studio comedy is in a rut. The format, as we know it, may never be the same. The notable theatrical comedies of the year have since had their release dates rescinded, with brand new digital dates assigned. For a brief, shining moment of the early-’00s, the studio comedy was king. It became a genre of progressive principles, average looking men with above average comedic timing, the realm of the stoner flick, and the successor of the high school movie of old. An entire generation got their grab bag of comedy and had their fun. Then the next generation was not laughing so hard. The last few years have found the genre largely in the dumps, some derivative and corny family pictures barely registering as releases in the memory of the public’s conscious. There were innovative breakthroughs from the studios — specifically, two of them — The Big Sick (2017) and Game Night (2018), which found comedic expression in new spaces, through human exploration and gamification of the core format. The Big Sick director Michael Showalter and star Kumail Nanjiani return with The Lovebirds, a film that assumes nothing at all has changed since those heady days where Apatow ruled the roost.
Let’s say a prayer of thanks to Kumail Nanjiani. He is madly funny. He is also fantastically fit these days. Now we want our actors to be pretty again, and funny, also, and he gets to be both. It’s as though Nanjiani was delivered to us as a complete comedic package. Once we all encountered him, he was well developed, had a killer sense of timing, and was instantly the funniest person we had seen on the screen in a while. What an absurdly good casting treat The Lovebirds is that he’s been paired with Issa Rae. To paraphrase a friend, wouldn’t we all like to fall in love with her, also? That’s what happens when we watch their chemistry on-screen, with both of them: instant chemistry, fireworks created by the pressure of their shared presence.
Showalter has already proven a sense for shaping a right-sized comedic plot. The Big Sick got it right. Here, the script falters, throwing its stars into an uneven night on the run. The elevator pitch works perfectly as a logline: a couple is struggling with their relationship, then they hit a biker, get embroiled in a crime plot, and spend a night clearing their names and the dirty laundry of their partnership. Succinct and gets where it needs to go. There are a few layers of story beats it hits by obligation. We’ve definitely been here before, done this before, but maybe not with such an amiable pairing as this. What is funny, beyond the natural charisma of its stars, is that given the plotting, the jokes hit as half whispers. Truly hilarious to whisper a joke, when Nanjiani murmers in the southern twang of their captor the exact threats she has spelled out for them. Less funny as the movie carries on and we wish for a fuller volume and escalation of the jokes, another repetition and story beat, anything we did not expect.
That never comes. What we do expect, from having been to enough rodeos, is absolutely filled. The Lovebirds is a fine little comedy. It never raises to the level of the creative partnership of The Big Sick. That was a big hospital bed to fill. The Lovebirds is still definitively charming. The audience ought to find empathy for the couple, as the story has empathy for them and the nature of modern relationships. If it does one thing successfully, that is also new, is that it paints tech-age connections with greater emotional honesty. And it is a good, honest picture. For a while, we could be convinced we’re in a flourishing period of comedy once again.