Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past.
The plot of The Lovebirds is inconsequential. This is the sort of movie that merely serves as a vehicle for the romantic and comedic chemistry of its two leads, in this case Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani. That said, the plot of The Lovebirds is significant for its continuation of the tradition of the inconsequential screwball rom-com plot. There’s a historical foundation at play, as two characters start off hating each other and then come to fall in love (or, as in this and many other films, fall back in love) through the course of a zany, madcap narrative filled with slapstick and witty bickering.
Below is a list recognizing classic screwball comedy precedents as well as one movie blatantly referenced in The Lovebirds and a couple of titles that directly influenced the making of the Netflix release. I’ve also slipped in some slightly relevant personal recommendations that the movie reminded me of. As always, for each suggestion of what to watch after you see The Lovebirds, we point you in the direction of the easiest way to see it, preferably streaming.
Queen & Slim (2019)
The plot of The Lovebirds could easily be done as a dramatic film, and that’s typical of a lot of comedies but especially is true of the screwball subgenre. In fact, much as been studied of the connections between screwball comedies and film noir and, more broadly, crime dramas. As pointed out in many reviews of The Lovebirds, it’s loosely comparable as kind of like a comedic version of Queen & Slim. You’ve got two characters paired romantically who are about to go their separate ways when a murder happens. They flee the scene because of the color of their skin, and as they’re on the run, they grow closer romantically.
Queen & Slim focuses a lot more on the racial aspect of its story, and the murder, while justified as an act of self-defense, is committed by one of its protagonists while the duo in The Lovebirds only indirectly help, for comedic effect, to cause the death that starts their ball rolling. Both movies have the male lead accidentally hitting someone with his car, though. In the end, the major difference between The Lovebirds and Queen & Slim comes with their genre distinctions. The former has to end with the couple together and happily ever after because it’s a comedy. The latter, well, let’s just say it doesn’t have to do the same.
Game Night (2018)
Studio comedies are on their death bed, and The Lovebirds being dumped to Netflix by Paramount — regardless of the coronavirus pandemic being the reason — is further evidence. Much of the problem is the mediocrity of movies like The Lovebirds, which seems to want to be bold but also play things safe. However, even when the rare good comedy comes along and receives positive reviews from critics, the box office results don’t usually show a very high demand for, or interest in, such movies on the big screen. Regardless of its reception, The Lovebirds wasn’t looking to be a big hit in theaters.
Game Night is a bit of an exception to the current rule. The acclaimed comedy was a modest success in its theatrical release, mainly because movies like this are rather cheap to produce. But its $69 million domestic gross is hardly a blip on the radar of even the Hollywood output of 2018. We consider it one of the greatest comedies of the 2010s, though, and certainly a funnier and better-written entry into the category of wild-night-out comedies in which mistaken identity and other misunderstandings throw regular folk main characters way over their heads into a crime plot, which they attempt to solve on their own.
The Big Sick (2017)
The Lovebirds reunites actor Kumail Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter, who last collaborated together on this comedic drama co-written by Nanjiani. The Big Sick is based on the experience of Nanjiani (who plays himself) and now-wife Emily V. Gordon (played on screen by Zoe Kazan) during their initial courtship and subsequent near-tragedy that brought them closer together. As in The Lovebirds, the couple in this movie breaks up early into the story but then something bad happens that keeps them linked in some way and they wind up happily ever after in the end.
Nanjiani and Gordon, who was the other credited writer on the screenplay, were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. That’s a difficult achievement to follow, but the script for The Lovebirds would be a disappointment even without such high expectations from the actor and director. Not to mention the added creative powerhouse that is Issa Rae. Actually, yes, let’s mention her. She has mostly been recognized for acting, particularly her performances in Insecure, the HBO series she created. But she also deserves more recognition for her writing. She and Nanjiani definitely could have written a better movie, and they should have higher standards for projects they don’t write, especially if they’re executive producers, as they are here.
It should be pointed out that Showalter is also a better writer than what’s on display in his latest movie (which was written, by the way, by three people: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, and Martin Gero). And much of what he’s worked on has played with classic rom-com tropes, particularly of the screwball variety. His feature directorial, The Baxter, is a splendid take on the Ralph Bellamy type of role from screwball masterpieces The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. He co-wrote They Came Together, which spoofs the screwball premies of The Shop Around the Corner (and its Nora Ephron evolutions). And even The Big Sick clearly deals with an extreme but true version of a screwball comedy scenario. He’s also capable of so much better.
I wish we learned more about the “social activism” type of documentary that Nanjiani’s character is working on in The Lovebirds. I would try to recommend an equivalent for this week’s obligatory nonfiction pick. Instead, I will highlight something set in New Orleans. There have been some criticisms against The Lovebirds for not doing enough to showcase its Crescent City setting, so if you want a celebration of New Orleans, look to James A. FitzPatrick’s duo of Traveltalks films or something by Les Blank, especially Always for Pleasure, or the Ross brothers’ enchanting documentary Tchoupitoulas, which fits best since it takes place during one adventurous night out, albeit one following young siblings and having nothing to do with a murder mystery.
Date Night (2010)
This movie is the easiest to acknowledge as being part of The Lovebirds‘ DNA, so much that it’s mentioned in nearly every review of the newer comedy. Date Night is also about a couple having some problems in their relationship who, during a night out, wind up mixed up in a crime plot. There’s some mistaken identity, a MacGuffin they’re supposed to be in possession of, and of course, dirty cops. Over the course of the one crazy night, they go on the run but also attempt to clear themselves by helping to solve the crime. It similarly depends a lot on the two leads — Tina Fey and Steve Carelll — who don’t have the best comedic chemistry, but the movie at least has more help from the supporting cast than Rae and Nanjiani have in The Lovebirds.
“Date Night works because it isn’t really trying too hard…in a way that’s the brilliance of the movie,” wrote Rob Hunter in his review ten years ago. “These are likable actors in energetic and humorous situations, but more than that they’re also likable characters. Phil and Claire feel like a real (enough) couple in love without the need to draw their marital issues out to cartoonish extremes just to get a laugh. And Carell and Fey are more than simply the film’s funny bone. They’re also the heart…The broad comedy of their misadventures and interactions with nutty characters is the main thrust of the movie, but woven throughout it all is a pretty sweet little romance. Phil and Claire are in love. They just needed a near-death experience to remember why.”
The Break-Up (2006)
In an interview with Cinema Blend, Rae and Nanjiani shared their individual picks for movies they watched in preparation for The Lovebirds. Rae’s go-to rom-com for comparison was The Break-Up. “I did look at The Break-Up,” she says. “For me, The Break-Up felt like a real couple going through things that so many couples can identify with and relate to. I think that’s also what appealed to me about this script. But I think it just had a bit more levity than that film, even though The Break-Up had dynamic actors in Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. That movie stands out to me as kind of representative of what I was thinking of.”
Vaughn and Aniston play a couple whom we see meet and fall in love and then see, at some later point in time, breakup, similar to the pair in The Lovebirds. But they don’t go on a crazy adventure together. Their plot keeps them together at home with the situation that neither wants to move out of their condo, so they attempt to live as roommates. This also isn’t a comedy of remarriage (or rekindling) because — spoiler alert — they don’t actually wind up back together. That’s probably the more realistic conclusion to these sorts of stories, but it’s also maybe not as satisfying for audiences’ expectations with fiction and fantasy.
Shaun of the Dead (2005)
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the screwball subgenre of comedies of remarriage tended to throw broken-up couples into crazy situations, similar to those of The Lovebirds, but in the last few decades, the situation of bringing exes or recently separated characters together has been more a staple of disaster movies. See the plots of Outbreak, Twister, 2012, San Andreas, Die Hard, and even the comedy Airplane! (which directly spoofs the similar situation in the serious Zero Hour!). TV Tropes refers to these plots as following the “relationship-salvaging disaster” trope. Shaun of the Dead is on there, too, but it’s different.
Shaun of the Dead is either firstly a zombie horror movie with a rom-com subplot or it’s a satire of rom-coms using a zombie invasion as an extreme zany situation for the main couple to experience together. I consider it more the latter. It’s not a disaster movie borrowing a comedy of remarriage situation. The whole premise revolves around the main characters’ breakup, which like in The Lovebirds happens at the beginning of the movie, just before something bad happens that requires the couple to reunite (well, at Shaun’s urging) and eventually rekindle their relationship. And every step of the zombie survival element is a metaphor for an obstacle in the romantic element, with different people in the way of their living happily ever after being killed off one by one to accommodate. It’s not just a great zom-rom-com, it’s a perfect rom-com, never mind the zom.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle is hardly the first movie to feature a ritualistic sex cult, and in fact, there’s an Austrian film from 1969 based on the same book featuring the whole creepy masquerade sequence with less nudity and graphic orgy material. Still, Eyes Wide Shut‘s exact depiction of the masked ball has been highly influential on its own, and even one of the aforementioned recommendations — Game Night — features a fancy party sequence reminiscent enough of the one in Eyes Wide Shut that a character calls it “Eyes Wide Fight Club.”
There’s something to the basic narrative direction shared by Eyes Wide Shut and a screwball action-comedy like The Lovebirds, beyond the latter’s secret society orgy club and masquerade that easily recalls Kubrick’s final feature. Both movies start with a romantic relationship on the fritz and end with the couple on better terms. But in Eyes Wide Shut, the adventure that takes them to that conclusion is one-sided. As with Shaun of the Dead, it’s a story that serves mostly the man’s fantasies as they pertain to proving that the couple’s love can survive anything.
The Pelican Brief (1993)
If The Lovebirds had been made in the 1990s, the New Orleans location would be much more emphasized. There’d be shots of Mardi Gras crowds even if it wasn’t set during Mardi Gras. It’d be the screwball equivalent of a legal thriller like The Pelican Brief, which has to highlight the Big Easy because it’s a John Grisham story. Not that it sticks around in New Orleans. Nor does it feature a romantic couple solving a crime. Instead, it’s an investigative team-up between a law student, one who is marked for death after discovering a conspiracy related to some murders, and a newspaper reporter. They never fall in love.
The Out-of-Towners (1970)
There’s no murder or mystery or effort to solve any crime, but The Out-of-Towners doesn’t need anything so extreme in its screwball plotting. The Neil Simon-penned, Arthur Hiller-helmed comedy is the king of couple’s wild night out movies. And don’t even think of watching the 1999 remake instead. The Out-of-Towners is Jack Lemmon being his most annoyed and neurotic and Sandy Dennis being as sweet as can be as they survive bad experience after bad experience in the Big Apple as evidence that nobody should like to move to the New York City of the John Lindsay mayoral era.
Looking at the movie today, you might like to root for Dennis’ character to divorce her husband for the way she’s treated in the story. But the ending is almost a total win for her. Almost. If it’s a screwball comedy, the married couple, who are in the city for a job interview that would have them relocate from the Ohio suburbs, would fight their way into a greater loving bond than they start out with. Instead, their arguing increases, though they stick together to the end, clearly out of traditional marital loyalty on her end. Yet she’s the one who keeps them together finally by sternly hinting what their future should be. Unfortunately, in the last scene she’s still asking him for permission for something as simple as having a cup of coffee on an airplane.
Fallen Angel (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
I need to make this entry brief since I almost decided to leave these films off the list, due to spoilers. But they’re old enough that it shouldn’t be a concern, and I should highlight a couple of film noir titles to maintain the idea that movies like The Lovebirds are evidence of the link between screwball comedy and noir. Both Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends are lesser-appreciated (yet solid) works by Otto Preminger following his success with Laura, and they each contain a reveal that the cop character is the killer (or vice versa?), and that’s now such a common twist for crime films, including The Lovebirds.
The Thin Man (1934) and A Night to Remember (1942)
In the Cinema Blend interview, Nanjiani cites a classic comedy franchise as an influence on what he wanted to do with The Lovebirds: “The movies I watched as sort of a good comparison, there’s a series of movies called The Thin Man, which are from a long time ago, and it’s this bickering married couple who solve crimes together,” he says, spotlighting the Dashiell Hammett-based films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. “Even though they’re always arguing, you can see that there’s love there, and it’s fun to watch and it’s funny. To me, that was the needle that we wanted to thread as well.” I can’t miss an opportunity to recommend The Thin Man, but you have to then see at least the first sequel, After the Thin Man, which is the best of the series.
I also have to recommend A Night to Remember, which is a little-known Columbia screwball mystery film starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne as a couple who solve a murder. While clearly a Thin Man knockoff, this adaptation of a book called The Frightened Stiff, is more akin to the story in The Lovebirds since it involves the couple in the murder — they’re viewed by the police as suspects since the body is found at their new apartment — as well as a blackmail scheme. It’s actually quite funny despite being stiffly scripted and directed and having a mostly uninteresting cast outside of the likable leads. And I think it’s a notable precursor to a lot of other films that would tend to just namecheck The Thin Man, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, the Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston movie Murder Mystery, and now The Lovebirds.