Review: ‘The Lovebirds,’ starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani

May 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in “The Lovebirds” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“The Lovebirds”

Directed by Michael Showalter

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the comedy “The Lovebirds” has a racially diverse cast (African Americans, Asians and white people) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Two bickering lovers try to solve a murder mystery so they won’t get blamed for the crime.

Culture Audience: “The Lovebirds” will appeal primarily to fans of Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani and predictable comedies that mix romance and action.

Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae in “The Lovebirds” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“The Lovebirds” is a perfect example of a movie whose trailer makes the film look a lot better than it actually is. It’s disappointing, since the comedic talents of Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani (the movie’s title characters) are wasted on a formulaic screenplay and pacing that is at times surprisingly dull for an action-oriented movie.

Paramount Pictures was originally going to release “The Lovebirds” in cinemas on April 3, 2020. But then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, movie theaters worldwide were shut down, Paramount dumped “The Lovebirds,” and gave the rights to Netflix. Given Netflix’s tendency to have silly and forgettable romantic comedy films, “The Lovebirds” is right at home on the streaming service. If the movie had been released in theaters, it certainly would not have been worth a full ticket price.

“The Lovebirds” starts out very promising in its first 20 minutes. The opening scene is of new couple Jibran (played by Nanjiani) and Leilani (played by Rae) having a blissful moment the morning after spending the night together for the first time. They head to a café, where they make the decision that their new relationship status has made it officially okay to kiss each other in public.

Four years later, Jibran and Leilani are living together, and their relationship has turned into a bickering hell. Jibran is an aspiring documentarian who hasn’t been able to finish his film about corruption in the education system. Leilani works at an ad agency and is the main earner for the household.

Leilani seems to resent that she has to carry most of the financial burden for the couple and is growing impatient that Jibran isn’t pulling his share of the weight. Meanwhile, Jibran is resentful that Leilani doesn’t understand the process of making the documentary, and he thinks she’s the one who’s being unreasonable. The concept of “success” and how it’s tied into self-esteem and respect from a love partner are the real issues in the relationship, but these issues come out in their arguments in petty ways.

For example, Leilani thinks it would be fun for her and Jibran to be contestants on the reality show “The Amazing Race,” a competition where teams of two complete challenges around the world , with the winning team getting a $1 million prize. Leilani has been begging Jibran to apply to the show with her, but he refuses because he’s a snob about reality TV and he’s insulted when Leilani compares documentaries to reality shows.

Meanwhile, Leilani is very social-media conscious and cares a great deal about what other couples in their circle of friends are posting on their social media, but Jibran could care less. When a mutual-friend couple announces their engagement on social media, Jibran chastises Leilani for “liking” the engagement photo, because she’s told him that she thinks marriage is “problematic.” But Leilani argues that if she didn’t “like” the photo, then she would look like a hater to everyone else.

Their arguing escalates into a huge shouting match where Jibran yells, “I don’t want to settle for someone who’s so fucking shallow!” Leilani responds with an insult that cuts even deeper: “I don’t want to settle for someone who’s satisfied with being a failure.” It’s at this point, that it looks like Jibran and Leilani have decided to end their relationship.

This argument is actually the best scene in the movie, which is why it’s so disappointing that the quality of the “Lovebirds” screenplay goes downhill from there. The next day, while Jibran and Leilani are a car together (he’s driving and she’s in the passenger seat), they begin arguing again about their relationship. Their bickering is suddenly interrupted when a man on a bicycle (played by Nicholas X. Parsons) crashes into their windshield.

A horrified Jibran and Leilani get out of the car and ask the man if he needs help, but he refuses and quickly rides off without noticing that he has dropped his phone, which Jibran keeps to probably turn in later. Suddenly, a mustachioed man (played by Paul Sparks) comes up to the couple and identifies himself as a cop who needs to use their car to chase after the man on the bike.

He quickly takes the wheel of the car, while Jibran and Leilani are both terrified and excited at being part of this car chase. Through some action-packed twists and turns, the biker gets cornered and the driver hits him with the car. Instead of calling for medical assistance, the driver instead runs over the man and kills him.

That’s when Leilani and Jibran realize that this mystery carjacker isn’t a cop after all. (The fact that he wasn’t concerned about getting police backup during the car chase should’ve been a big clue.) And after the bicyclist is lying dead in the street, the carjacker/murderer runs away, just as another couple walks up and sees Jibran and Leilani standing next to the dead body.

The other couple assumes that Jibran and Leilani are responsible for killing the dead man with the car, so they immediately call 911. That leads to Jibran and Leilani frantically denying that they were responsible and trying to explain that a mystery man who ran away actually committed the crime. It doesn’t sound believable, so Jibran and Leilani both panic and run away, but not before calling out each other’s names so the female 911 caller can tell the police that information.

While taking refuge at a local restaurant, Leilani convinces a reluctant Jibran that they should try to solve the murder mystery on their own so they won’t get blamed for the crime. Her thinking is that it’s up to them to prove their innocence because the police won’t believe their story and it already looks bad that they ran away from the scene of the crime.

Jibran thinks it’s a better idea to explain to the police what happened, but Leilani refuses. She also plays into the couple’s fears of police treating black and brown people worse than other races, and that’s ultimately why Jibran goes along with her plan. The rest of the movie, which takes place over the course of one night, consists of Jibran and Leilani getting into more and more ridiculous situations.

Whether it’s a coincidence or not, Nanjiani previously co-starred in another over-the-top action comedy about a wacky twosome trying to solve a crime, in 2019’s “Stuber.” In “Stuber,” Uber was the ride-sharing service that gets a lot of product placement, while “The Lovebirds” has Lyft as the ride-sharing service of choice. “The Lovebirds” isn’t as annoying and silly as “Stuber,” but it’s pretty close. (You know a movie is bad if one of its big comedic scenes has the stars of the movie singing along when they hear Katy Perry’s “Firework.”)

The biggest disappointment of “The Lovebirds” is how often the movie’s pace drags when it shouldn’t. A scene with Jibran and Leilani ending up at a mysterious black-tie gathering with people wearing masks (something that’s in the movie’s trailer) could have been hilarious, but the humor ends up falling flat.

There are also some fight scenes that don’t make sense. For example, Jibran and Leilani break into what looks like a fraternity house and brutally assault one of the guys there (it’s in the trailer), but while this fight is going on, the other house residents who are in the next room unrealistically don’t hear this very loud and raucous fight. “The Lovebirds” is one of those slapstick movies where certain people get injuries that would send someone to a hospital in real life, but the severely injured person is still able to function as if the injury is nothing more than a pesky bruise.

Michael Showalter directed “The Lovebirds” after previously directing Nanjiani in the 2017 comedy “The Bick Sick,” a film inspired by the real-life love story of Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, who both wrote the film’s Oscar-nominated screenplay. The difference in quality between “The Big Sick” and “The Lovebirds” shows how crucial having a well-written screenplay can be, even if the director is the same. Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, who wrote the formulaic and uninspired screenplay for “The Lovebirds,” mainly have a background in television (they both worked on the TV series “Blindspot”), so it seems they have a way to go before they can master the art of writing comedic feature films.

Rae and Nanjiani (who are executive producers of “The Lovebirds”) are both talented writers/actors who found fame on HBO comedy series—Rae on “Insecure,” Nanjiani on “Silicon Valley.” You can’t help but wonder how much better “The Lovebirds” would have been if Rae and/or Nanjiani had written the screenplay. Their performances in “The Lovebirds” sometimes elevate what is essentially lowbrow movie material, but the appealing personalities of these actors just can’t quite turn this stinking mess of a movie into the comedy feast that it should have been.

Netflix will premiere “The Lovebirds” on May 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Human Capital,’ starring Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff and Fred Hechinger

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liev Schreiber in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Human Capital”

Directed by Marc Meyers

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Human Capital” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and the upper-class.

Culture Clash: A hit-and-run car accident and financial pressures affect the lives of two families from different socioeconomic classes.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful dramas and who won’t mind that the story is told in a non-chronological manner.

Alex Wolff and Maya Hawke in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The tightly wound dramatic film “Human Capital” shows what happens when desperate people do desperate things and how they deal with the ethical dilemmas they face in the process. Based on Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel “Human Capital” (which was adapted into the 2014 Italian film “Il Capitale Umano”), this American movie version begins with the incident that is at the center of the turmoil in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed suburb in upstate New York.

While riding his bicycle home from work one night, a restaurant waiter is suddenly stuck by a speeding Jeep Wrangler in a hit-and-run-accident. The Jeep Wrangler briefly stops and the unseen driver does not get out of the car before speeding off. Observant viewers can immediately notice some clues (including the make and model of the car), but even then it’s best not to assume that these clues are proof of who the perpetrator really is.

The mystery unfolds in layers, as the three acts in the story are each told from the perspective of three of the main characters: financially desperate real-estate broker Drew Hagel (played by Liev Schreiber), rich housewife Carrie Manning (played by Marisa Tomei) and high-school student Shannon Dark (played by Maya Hakwe), who is Drew’s daughter from his first marriage. (Shannon took her mother’s maiden name after her parents got divorced.) All of them are or will be connected to the hit-and-run accident in some way.

Drew’s perspective is told first. He’s first seen on screen with Shannon, as he drives her to the home of her new boyfriend Jamie Manning (played by Fred Hechinger), who is the son of a wealthy hedge-fund mogul named Quint Manning (played by Peter Sarsgaard). While Drew marvels at the Manning family’s large estate, Shannon acts like she’s not impressed by the family’s wealth and she looks like she just hopes that her father doesn’t embarrass her when he drops her off at the home.

Drew first meets Quint’s wife Carrie. In the space of a few minutes, Drew tells Carrie that he owns his own real-estate company, he and his first wife (Shannon’s mother) did not have friendly divorce, and he’s now married to a woman whom Drew calls “his trophy wife.” These are indications that Drew wants to give the impression that he’s a rich and successful businessman.

As Drew is getting ready to leave, he meets Quint, when Quint asks Drew to join him in a game of doubles tennis on the mansion’s tennis court. After the game, Drew asks Quint if he’s taking any more investors in his hedge fund WNV. Quint tells Drew that the only new investors he’ll accept are family and friends. But since they’ve gotten along so well in their short time together, Quint tells Drew that the minimum investment is $300,000.

Drew can get the money, but only through borrowing via home equity at a fairly high interest rate. Drew discusses the matter with his business manager Andy (played by James Waterston), who advises him against the deal. It’s a risky move because Drew’s real-estate business (he’s the only employee) hasn’t been doing well, but he’s too embarrassed to admit his financial problems to anyone other than Andy. Drew seems determined to impress Quint, with the hopes of making a profit from the investment, so Drew ignores Andy’s advice and goes through with the investment deal by doing something illegal.

Drew doesn’t tell his current wife Ronnie (played by Betty Gabriel) about this deal. But she’s got news for him: After having multiple miscarriages in the past, she’s now pregnant with twins. Ronnie is a therapist, but her salary wouldn’t be enough to cover the financial losses if Drew’s investment turns out to be a bad decision. Needless to say, the impending birth of the children puts even more financial pressure on Drew.

Meanwhile, the movie’s second act focuses on the perspective of Quint’s wife Carrie. Viewers find out that she’s interested in buying a run-down performing-arts theater in the area and turning it into a cultural center for movie screenings, stage performances and other events. But first, she needs her husband Quint’s money, and she convinces him to buy the theater for their nonprofit foundation.

One of the people on the foundation board is a professor (played by Paul Sparks), who recognizes Carrie as a former actress who used to do horror movies. When he’s alone with Carrie, he flirts with her and confesses that he’s a fan of her work. He also mentions that if the theater needs an artistic director, he’d like to be considered for the position.

During a lunch appointment with him, Carrie confesses that her marriage has had some problems, including Quint having “three affairs in 20 years.” When the professor asks Carrie if she’s ever cheated on Quint, her response is that she’s thought about it many times, but never actually did it. When Quint finds out about the lunch, he tells Carrie about a decision he made about the theater. You can see where this is headed, so it comes no surprise at what happens next.

The third and final act of the story is told from Shannon’s perspective. Viewers find out that she’s a lot more angst-ridden than she first appeared in the other parts of the story. She’s desperate for love and attention outside of her family, but hides that desperation behind a façade of appearing emotionally distant and insolent. While visiting her stepmother Ronnie at Ronnie’s job, Shannon is in the waiting area and meets another teenager named Ian, who is one Ronnie’s patients. They exchange some sarcastic banter, but it’s obvious that they’re attracted to one another.

There’s too much spoiler information to talk about what happens during other parts of the movie, but it’s enough to say that there are several flashbacks that revolve around what happened the night of a gala event where Jamie’s elite private school gave a prestigious award to one of its students. Seated at the same table at the event were Quint, Carrie, Jamie, Quint’s obnoxious lawyer Godeep (played by Aasif Mandvi), Godeep’s wife (played by Christiane Seidel), Shannon, Ronnie and Drew.

The American version of “Human Capital” (directed by  Marc Meyers) is not as stylishly filmed as director Paolo Virzì’s Italian version. While the Italian version had a sleek, minimalistic look to its production design and cinematography, the American version opts for a grittier, more cluttered look. The American version of the movie is a straightforward mystery thriller, while the Italian version seemed to have more to say about the dark sides of ambitious social climbing.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (2009’s “The Messenger”) does a capable job with the American version of the “Human Capital” screenplay, which certainly ramps up the “whodunit” tension throughout the film. However, the film’s middle section that’s shown from Carrie’s perspective really doesn’t add much to the story, compared to the beginning and ending to the film.

One character in particular has a backstory that is mentioned but never seen in the movie. It would have been interesting to explore more of this person’s history. However, enough of this person’s background is revealed to explain why this person does an extreme act toward the end of the film. All of the actors do a very good job with their roles, but Hawke’s Shannon character is probably the hardest one to pull off because her character is the least predictable.

For people who want to know who committed the hit-and-run, the movie does end up showing the entire set of circumstances that led up to the hit-and-run, who was responsible, and what happened afterward. However, the American version of “Human Capital” doesn’t fully address some of the illegal acts that certain characters committed in the movie that might or might nor be related to the hit-and-run crime. In other words, some loose ends are tied up, but not all.

Vertical Entertainment released “Human Capital” on DirecTV on February 20, 2020, and on VOD on March 20, 2020.