Struggles of young New Yorkers have provided fodder for countless portraits of urban angst that vainly strive to reach for the tropes of Woody Allen. "Wild Canaries" has all the markings of this formula, but makes some admirable attempts to shake it up by stuffing the usual routine into a detective story. If the "Scooby-Doo" gang grew up and moved into a cramped Manhattan apartment building, they might resemble the oddball characters populating director Lawrence Michael Levine's bubbly murder mystery, in which the ultimate solution to the whodunit scenario matters less than the wily energy its characters bring to uncovering the puzzle.
"Wild Canaries" exists somewhere on the spectrum between Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather:" Moody protagonists, swept up in the aimless flow of their lives, seek escape from its monotonous rhythms. As Noah, Levine plays the self-involved fiancé to the much younger Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine's wife), who wastes her days wandering around their neighborhood dreaming plans for the couple to move out of town. Their roommate, a smarmy lesbian named Jean (Alia Shawkat) provides Barri with moral support in the face of her partner's indifference, but the spunky Barri — 10 years younger than Noah and in many ways his opposite — can only focus on the simplest goals. She's a heroine in her own imagination, and "Wild Canaries" often gets lost in it, but at best it pays homage to the need for a creative outlet to escape the claustrophobia of young adulthood.
In that context, the sudden death of upstairs neighbors Sylvia, supposedly of natural causes, arrives like a twisted gift: Instantly suspicious of the woman's visiting son (Kevin Corrigan) as he sells off his mother's possessions, she quickly slips into the role of a hipster Columbo, replete with crumbled trench coat, trailing the suspicious man's every move. In short order, another suspect drifts into the picture: the couple's neighboring artist Damien (Jason Ritter), the smiling life of the party, except when he feuds with his estranged wife (Lindsey Burdge, "A Teacher"). The fury is infectious: Growing weary over Barri's obsession with the possibilities of a crime, Noah loses his own temper with his fiancé a few scenes later. When Takal raises her voice and widens her eyes, "Wild Canaries" transcends too-cute narrative trappings to become a legitimate expression of inner-city frustrations.
This is familiar turf for Levine, whose previous feature "Gabi on the Roof in July" also involved a colorful ensemble cast bouncing around the city and lost in their ill-conceived ambitions. But "Wild Canaries" is rescued from the gratingly neurotic leads by the clever ingredients fueling its framing device. Michael Montes' groovy score, an eighties throwback of blaring trumpets and synthesizers, makes Barri's cartoonish excitement infectious — not only for viewers but her friends, who grow invested in the enigma. "Acting weird is not a crime," Noah tells Barri after she levels another round of suspicions at their neighbors, but with time even he realizes not every inexplicable or eccentric event can be so icily dismissed. By eventually taking the situation seriously, he helps solve not only the murder but their own domestic issues.
Their eventual partnership in addressing the crime, aided by the likes of Jean and Noah's ex-girlfriend-turned lesbian (Annie Parisse), has the genial quality of a community learning to collaborate irrespective of their goals. But with a "Clue"-like final reveal that invokes everything from modern New York real estate woes to Hurricane Sandy, it's clear that "Wild Canaries" has more to say about the modern pressures of New York living than the cockamamie plot surrounding them. The movie's strongest images arrive not during the outwardly goofy chase scenes of the finale, but during an early party scene filled with dancing bodies slowed down to a crawl. That's the essence of "Wild Canaries": In spite of the constant activity, there's not a whole lot going on, but it's still a fun place to visit.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sure to make the rounds at smaller U.S. festivals, "Wild Canaries" should enjoy a solid life on the circuit, though it has limited commercial potential — but could find a solid shelf life on VOD due to its genre hook and a handful of recognizable faces.