Review: WILD CANARIES, An Effervescent Comic Murder Mystery, Both Retro And Modern

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
Review: WILD CANARIES, An Effervescent Comic Murder Mystery, Both Retro And Modern
One of the most interesting forms of music sampling is what's known as the "mash-up." In some of the best and most creative examples of this practice - e.g. Danger Mouse's Grey Album (Jay Z's Black Album/Beatles' White Album) or Girl Talk's masterful records - all the disparate pieces of music used greatly benefit from the juxtaposition and re-contextualization.

Lawrence Michael Levine performs a similar symbiosis in cinematic terms in his second feature, the delightful comic mystery Wild Canaries, which he wrote, directed, and co-stars in. On one hand, this Brooklyn-set film concerns a number of characters navigating their way through emotional and financial complications, which connects it thematically to Levine's first feature Gabi on the Roof in July (2010). 

On the other hand, this situation is wedded to a consciously retro-flavored murder mystery, with iris-shot scene transitions and zoom lenses visually evoking older films, Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, the Thin Man series, and Hitchcock (explicitly referred to at one point) being only the most obvious antecedents. Beyond the film's other virtues - its infectiously playful atmosphere, precisely rendered use of specific Brooklyn settings, and its spirited and funny performances - Wild Canaries impresses with how successfully and astutely Levine works his parallel stylistic tracks, lending a bracing freshness to what would feel overly familiar in less skilled hands.

Opening with a great mock-suspense scene and a beautifully designed credits sequence evoking Saul Bass and James Bond, Wild Canaries quickly introduces us to its central couple. Noah (Levine) works as an indie film distributor, and lives with his fiancĂ©e Barri (Sophia Takal), who is currently unemployed. They're in a precarious financial situation, what with Barri's unemployment and Noah's business not going so well at the moment; this is one of the main reasons for their frequent arguments. 

At first glance, Noah and Barri would seem to be polar opposites personality-wise. Barri is an energetic and enthusiastic, but aimless and flighty, given to such get-rich-quick schemes such as her current idea to renovate an upstate resort to generate income. The older Noah often plays the role of the more sensible and rational partner in the relationship, and is often exasperated by Barri's impulsive actions. 

Contributing to this volatile emotional mix are two other characters that are a source of jealousy for both sides. Noah and Barri's roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat), is a lesbian who harbors a secret crush on Barri, and supports Barri's ideas when Noah fails to. Noah's business partner Eleanor (Anne Parisse), just happens to be his ex-girlfriend. Although Eleanor is now a lesbian, she still hasn't quite let go of her latent feelings for Noah.

That right there would be enough for some other films, but as they say in late night infomercials, wait, there's more. The scenario gets shaken up greatly when Sylvia (Marylouise Burke), an elderly neighbor Barri has befriended, is found by Barri one day dead of an apparent heart attack. Sylvia's son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) appears to Barri to be less than grief-stricken at his mother's death. This, along with his act of quickly selling off his mother's possessions and his general weird and shifty demeanor, has Barri suspecting Anthony of bumping her off for his mother's insurance money. 

Soon, Barri is sneaking around, breaking into Anthony's apartment while he's away to gather evidence. This exasperates Noah even further; he insists Barri is overreacting and being overly influenced by a recent Hitchcock retrospective she recently attended. Noah makes Barri promise to stop her snooping; however, she continues to investigate, donning a floppy hat, trench coat and sunglasses to follow Anthony around, bringing Jean along with her. 

Barri's bumbling, amateur detective work eventually stumbles upon a larger plot, one that also involves Damien (Jason Ritter), their apartment building's landlord and sometime poker buddy of Noah's. Damien turns out to have money problems of his own, and is embroiled in a vicious divorce and child custody battle with his ex-wife (Lindsey Burdge). These plot elements, along with more pieces of the puzzle, converge in the latter half of the film, putting both Barri and Noah in physical danger.

The genre play of Wild Canaries greatly contributes to the myriad pleasures to be had in watching it, and helps to make this film a great way to recover from an awards season that can often become insufferably self-important. Another great asset is the wonderful physical comedy on display, much of it centering on Noah, who gets battered quite a lot throughout; he's gets punched in the face twice, and is eventually saddled with a neck brace in the film's later scenes. Much comedy is also generated by Barri's approach to sleuthing. This largely consists of peering out from behind trees, bushes, and parked cars to elude detection when following people, as well as hiding under tables and behind couches when snooping in other people's apartments.

Performances here are uniformly fine, starting with Levine and Takal as the main couple. Noah's sarcastic brittleness and Barri's wide-eyed idealism at first clashes like oil and water, devolving at one point into a screaming match between the two; but eventually a dead body and murder plot brings the two closer together. Levine and Takal are married in real life, but even of you're not aware of that fact, there's an evident frisson of intimacy to their exchanges that would be difficult to manufacture.

The rest of the cast provides solid support, from Alia Shawkat's charmingly plucky sidekick and Anne Parisse's alluring potential "other woman," to indie-film stalwart Kevin Corrigan's fascinating eccentricities and Jason Ritter's subtly menacing turn. Even the characters with the least screen time are memorable and sharply defined.

Michael Montes' bracing dub reggae-flavored score nicely enlivens the proceedings, often feeling like a latter-day Henry Mancini. Mark Schwartzbard's nimble, agile camerawork makes the most of the vivid specificity of the locations - the film was shot in the actual apartment building and neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where Levine and Takal lived at the time of filming. These visual and aural elements, along with Levine's clever writing, help to make Wild Canaries at once of the moment and timeless.

Wild Canaries is currently playing in New York at IFC Center. It is also available on VOD and will screen in other cities in the U.S. in the coming weeks. For more information, visit the film's website

Wild Canaries

  • Lawrence Michael Levine
  • Lawrence Michael Levine
  • Sophia Takal
  • Lawrence Michael Levine
  • Alia Shawkat
  • Annie Parisse
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Lawrence Michael LevineSophia TakalWild CanariesAlia ShawkatAnnie ParisseComedyMysteryRomance

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