Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s film, “Wild Canaries,” is a tonal and genre departure from his previous feature, “Gabi On The Roof In July,” but his hipster Brooklyn milieu remains the same. This film poses the question: just how might a murder mystery in this yuppie brownstone setting play out? The result, with bumbling amateur detectives, constantly squabbling couples, and a pair of actually sane lesbians, is a mixed bag, to be honest.
For starters, Levine deploys retro stylistic genre markers such as irises to signal that this film, while a contemporary relationship drama in some ways, is also playing in the world of stylized, over-the-top capers and mystery. Dramatic music underscores rather innocuous startles and surprises to indicate something more menacing than what is really going on. This is how the film opens, before bringing us into the world of Noah (Levine) and his fiancée, Barri (Sophia Takal, also a producer on the film).
Noah and Barri have a fine life in a nice apartment with their roommate, Jean (Alia Shawkat, always a welcome presence), and their neighbors, the elderly Sylvia (Mary Louise Burke) and party hard artist/landlord Damien (Jason Ritter). Unemployed Barri has grand plans to renovate an abandoned Catskills resort, while Noah has a job of some sort involving DVDs and his ex-girlfriend, the now lady-loving Eleanor (Annie Parisse). It’s just that Noah and Barri don’t particularly seem to like each other that much. In respective moments with either Jean (also a lesbian) or Eleanor, they are much more affectionate and at ease than they are with each other. Here’s a mystery: why are these two together?
When Barri discovers Sylvia dead in her apartment, it sets off the murder mystery plot, and she begins to suspect Sylvia’s son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan, almost doing his best Christopher Walken impression), of foul play for the life insurance policy. Thus begins Barri’s descent into a madcap, clumsy attempt at detective work, literally creeping behind trees and cars on sleepy Brooklyn streets in Inspector Gadget drag. She succeeds, in spite of herself, and in spite of Noah, who steadfastly refuses to suspect his neighbors and drinking buddies of foul play, while also undergoing a series of continuing bodily traumas and injuries (there’s definitely a corporeal degradation theme surrounding Noah that is not quite made clear in the film — maybe something to do with loss of identity?).
The murder mystery itself is entirely uncompelling, as one will wonder not whodunnit but why is this woman so obsessed with it? As Barri contemplates murderer motives, we contemplate her motive for sussing out the truth. A friendly relationship between her and Sylvia is established early on, but it doesn’t quite support the obsessive and illegal extremes she goes to. She claims at one point to want to “be a good person,” but nothing about that claim is even remotely interesting or even believable in a world that revolves on a moral axis of navel-gazing narcissism. By the time the film actually gets dark, it’s two-thirds of the way through and it’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf — when it actually happens, the goodwill of the audience has been squandered on false or otherwise inauthentic alarms.
There are some fun elements to the film: the supporting cast of Shawkat, Parisse, and Corrigan are authentic and charming, easily inhabiting lived-in roles that contrast with the manic Levine and Takal. The dub score is a great addition to the aesthetic and adds a chill groove to the antics. Barri and Noah are a sort of contemporary Nick and Norah, of “The Thin Man” series from the 1930s, but while those married detectives were cool-headed and stylish, this pair is neurotic, shrill, and largely incompetent (which is kind of the point).
Eventually, the murder is resolved and all of the background details are explained in an extensive exposition and flashback-laden conversation between Jean and Eleanor, which sort of takes the fun out of it. And yet, Barri and Noah’s motivations remain a mystery. The genre play is an interesting and original take on what has become a cliché genre of Brooklyn relationship dramedy, but unfortunately, the execution of the story is bungled along the way, and the film ends up feeling like not quite one thing and not quite the other. Ultimately, “Wild Canaries” doesn’t quite achieve the considerable expectations that it sets for itself. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.